CRE conferences approach pre-pandemic attendance

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Major conferences serving the commercial real estate industry are approaching pre-pandemic attendance, although some virus restrictions remain in place. Overall, however, industry players welcome a greater return to face-to-face meetings to close deals.

Whether it’s the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) returning to its annual RECon meeting in Las Vegas in May after cancellations in 2020 and 2021, the National Investment Center (NIC) holding its Spring and Fall in person or Urban Land Institute (ULI) and NAIOP doing the same is business as usual with a few exceptions.

According to ICSC, which has been holding in-person events since October, more than 22,000 people showed up for RECon in Las Vegas last month, down from the more than 30,000 people who attended the event in May 2019.

That turnout was higher than expected, notes Stephanie Cegielski, ICSC Vice President, Research and Public Relations. Meanwhile, the ICSC Florida event scheduled for Aug. 28-30 in Orlando is expected to be tied with pre-pandemic attendance. Neither convention required proof of vaccination for registration, unlike some conferences across the country.

“This is the first conference in two years that we’ve been to,” said David Gabbai, an Orlando-based retail broker with commercial real estate services firm Colliers International who attended RECon in May. “It wasn’t a return to normal, but the quality of the show was surprisingly good. We expected the lounge to be less crowded and the quality of meetings not to be as good as it was. He was optimistic, even with the expected slowdown in the economy. This did not deter the level of enthusiasm.

While productive, this year’s conference has been shortened to a day and two-thirds from the previous two-and-a-half days, he notes. That meant connecting with fewer people for Gabbai, which represents restaurant brands such as Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse and Buffalo Wild Wings, among others.

“It reduced the meeting time we had because most people didn’t want to come on Tuesdays,” notes Gabbai. “They wanted to go home with fewer direct flights. It changed the way things were done with dinners, parties, and the social aspects of the business.

According to Cegielski, the ICSC decided to end the show on Tuesday due to historically low attendance on the third day. ICSC New York, the organization’s second-largest annual event, is scheduled for Dec. 6-8.

“I look forward to the normalcy of the New York show, which is great for planning next year and a more relaxed atmosphere than Las Vegas,” Gabbai said. “Orlando and New York will be a normal sight. The pandemic scare is behind us. We have treatments for COVID, and it’s not as prevalent and risky to your health with lesser strain.

NAIOP

The NAIOP returned to in-person meetings in the summer of 2021 and attendance has steadily increased since then and even surpassed pre-pandemic levels, according to NAIOP President and CEO Thomas Bisacquino. .

Members of the organization have experienced “Zoom fatigue” and are eager to meet in person, Bisacquino says. NAIOP held an annual hybrid in-person/remote event in Miami in September and hasn’t since. At the August 2021 NAIOP event in Long Beach, California, attendance was at 75% of its normal level. Last September’s event in Miami was at 85% pre-pandemic attendance, with 1,000 people. By the time of the industry meeting in Jersey City, NJ in November and another industry meeting in Long Beach in March of this year, attendance was fully back to pre-pandemic numbers.

Meanwhile, when NAIOP returned to Jersey City on June 8-9, attendance jumped to 900 from 850 before the pandemic. Some 1,200 people registered for the event, so NAIOP had to close registration, Bisacquino says.

“It was the first time in the association’s history that we couldn’t accept everyone because there was no more room at the hotel,” notes Bisacquino. “As far as I’m concerned, last week certainly demonstrated that we’re back to 100 per cent.”

“We’re heading into fall and if this fall is anything like last fall, we’ll end up with some sort of variation. Is that enough to make people not want to travel? I doubt. My gut tells me that this fall, we will run our meetings as successfully as ever.

NAIOP, which does not require proof of vaccination to participate, will hold its annual conference in Chicago in October, and registrations and sponsorships are trending strongly, Bisacquino says.

“We are men and women of commercial real estate,” he notes. “It’s a very face-to-face business. There’s as much business happening in the hallway and at dinner as there is in the room where the presentation is made.

NICs

According to Chuck Harry, COO of NIC, virtual meetings are not enough in an industry where conferences place a heavy emphasis on business development and networking. The NIC did not return to in-person events until it moved its annual fall conference from Chicago to Houston last November because COVID-19 restrictions would have limited attendance in the Windy City. The event drew 2,400 in-person attendees, about 72% of pre-pandemic levels, compared to 3,300 attendees in fall 2019.

At the NIC’s spring meeting in Dallas in March, attendance was 90% of that recorded in March 2020, with 1,700 attendees up from the previous 1,900, according to Harry.

“A lot of these relationships are operators looking for capital for their business and the best ability to get to know someone and understand them is in person rather than trying to do it remotely,” he notes.

The Dallas conference in March had the same setup as Houston, with a third-party verified two-shot vaccine requirement, packed lunches and reduced conference room occupancy to space people out in a ballroom. , notes Harry.

For the organization’s fall 2022 event in Washington, D.C., the NIC updated its requirements by providing proof of full vaccination or proof of a negative COVID-19 test 48 hours prior to the event .

“Senior housing serves the most vulnerable population among us and we want to make sure these protocols are in place, especially for operators. Not everyone was happy with the vaccination requirements and didn’t show up,” Harry notes.

At this time, however, NIC is still not budgeting for a return to pre-pandemic attendance levels at the DC meeting, fearing that another virus variant could arise.

“There’s always an opportunity if your numbers are significantly higher to go back to the hotel and adjust accordingly, but we can only make those adjustments at the margin,” notes Harry. “We’re looking at 85% of those numbers from 2019, which is consistent with what we’ve seen in the industry. Many use this 15% discount from the number of previous participants. »

No decision has been made on what the NIC’s COVID-19 event restrictions might be in 2023. According to Harry, because no one expects the virus to go away, event planning has been more a matter of flexibility and learning to navigate the situation safely.

ULI

“This is the first quarter where we’ve seen a return to the normal conference season,” says Matt Gardner, head of life sciences for the Americas at commercial real estate services firm CBRE, who attended the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) international convention in San Diego this week, where proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test were required. “I would definitely say it’s not fully back (in attendance), but it’s on the rise. It’s great to see everyone in person again. There was a significant sense of relief and hope to return to normal. I met a lot of old friends and people are happy to be back in the room together.

The same trend was evidenced by the fact that ULI reported its second-highest spring meeting attendance on record in April in San Diego, with 4,400 people, according to Gwenyth Cote, president of ULI Americas. She expects a repeat at ULI’s fall meeting in October in Dallas. The organization also accommodated people with a digital package for live and on-demand programming. Attendance in person required proof of vaccination through the CLEAR Health Pass app.

It felt “more like a normal conference,” notes Aaron Jodka, director of research, US capital markets, Colliers, who attended ULI’s spring meeting and will be attending the fall meeting in Dallas. “There was a lot of excitement when people saw each other and exchanged business cards and new relationships. There was an energy there that was fun to be a part of. You can tell people were thrilled to be back. It’s starting to feel like what the world was like before COVID from a conference perspective.

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