In the first quarter of 2020, the Boise Centre was on pace to set attendance and revenue records, but everything came to halt in mid-March. In fact, Idaho's largest meeting facility was hosting a convention when governors in Oregon and Washington issued travel restrictions due to a rapid increase of COVID-19 cases, sending convention attendees to the exits of the Boise Centre.
"These people had to literally stop meeting, mid-stream," said Boise Centre Executive Director Pat Rice.
Indeed, COVID-19 has crippled Idaho's tourism industry, which has generated nearly a half-million dollars in local, state and federal tax revenues each year. But Rice says the Boise Centre has instituted scores of new protocols in order to swing its doors back open again.
Rice visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the Centre's reopening plan, rethinking high-profile events such as the Festival of Trees and how the facility is poised to host a mid-sized convention as early as August.
“We actually have a convention the first week of August that is committed to continue to being here.”
Read the full transcript below:
GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning, I'm George Prentice. With all of the stories about the dire straits of the agriculture, technology, and financial industries, we are reminded that tourism is a huge economic engine in Idaho and tourism has been hit pretty hard by the pandemic. So we're going to talk a bit about that with the man in charge at one of Idaho's highest profile destinations for meetings and conventions, he is Pat Rice Executive Director of The Boise Center, and he joins us live this morning via Zoom. Pat, good morning.
PAT RICE: Good morning.
PRENTICE: First off, can you give us a sense of how devastating the pandemic has been for The Boise Center?
RICE: It has definitely changed our world. For us, we had our last event, the middle of March. In fact, we had a convention with attendees from Oregon and Washington, as well as other surrounding States, but those were the two key ones because the governors, particularly the governor of Washington, immediately put travel restrictions in, and these people had to literally stop meeting midstream.
So, they left. We have not had an event in the building short of last week, we finally had two small events. One was our regular board meeting for the district and the other was the [DBA 00:01:24] board meeting. We were actually on pace. It's a little frustrating because we were on pace at the end of February to have a record year. The rest of the entire year was booked and we were on pace to have a record year. Room tax revenues as well we're on pace to have a record year, and the last two years have been record years as well. So again, the pace was exceptional, obviously that changed drastically.
PRENTICE: I want to take note of your reopening plan, your clean and safe reopening plan, by my count I think it's 13 pages. It is impressively detailed, I guess once I read them, they are so obvious, but quite frankly, I have not seen them in other reopening plans. For instance, under cleaning procedures, the building's HVAC system will be set to have a negative air pressure in all areas where possible to reduce the recirculation of airflow and that the HVAC system will purge air nightly from the building and bring in fresh air overnight. I'm not seeing that kind of detail in so many reopening plans. So I guess my point here is this is quite impressive.
RICE: The protocols are very important in making sure that our clients and our team is safe. The team is required to wear masks at all times when they're around people, gloves when appropriate for the job that they're doing. But anyway, as far as the protocols go, the one that's mandatory, that is non-negotiable in our contracts now, we invested in three thermal imaging cameras. They're not cheap, but well worth the investment to protect our clients and our staff. So everyone who enters the building, even currently, has to be temp checked through the thermal imaging camera.
We also have a dozen portable thermometers that we use when we have guests come in that are off hours from our thermal imaging camera entrance. And that's going to be required moving forward for the foreseeable future. So if people are not comfortable with that, then we ask them not to come to an event and it's up to the client to be responsible for those individuals. If somebody temp's hot, we have a cooling room, a private room where people can go. So again, we've got the protocols set up there. That first stage of defense, you might say, not one protocol is ideal. It's the combination of the temperature checks, the cleanliness standards, people taking personal responsibility.
PRENTICE: Are you communicating with events or convention planners, medium size or possibly even larger size, about bookings in the future?
RICE: Oh, daily. We actually have a convention the first week of August, that is committed to continue to being here.
PRENTICE: About what size?
RICE: It's 400 people.
PRENTICE: Okay, well that would require at least Stage Four. Yes?
RICE: Potentially. However, we've also because of our size, because of the expansion, we've been able to do their room sets to minimize down to 50 people per set so that they are... It's all socially distanced or physically distanced. All the protocols are in place, and there's not more than 50 people in a space, in a given area, no more than that at any one time. So if stage four moves, and depending on again, what the local authorities versus the state authorities, are we going to be held to 250? Or is it going to be discretion used if space matters, and that's been, candidly, my frustration since this all started, but the numbers have been sort of arbitrary. And in this case, the amount of square footage of a facility has definitely matters. And I think that, that's been ignored quite honestly.
PRENTICE: Could you book a number of conventions that are waiting in the wings, if you were capped at 250?
RICE: 250 is a tough number for us, because most conventions actually are, and particularly those that we've been marketing to over the years, have increased over 500, 600, even up to 1200, but to answer your question, yes, absolutely. We'll market to whoever is interested in coming to Boise and the Treasure Valley.
PRENTICE: But what I'm hearing you say is that the lion's share, though, are 500 plus, yes?
RICE: Yeah, 400 and up is really the ideal. We can do two conventions of 400 at the same time. The majority of conventions now have moved into late fall this year or actually into 2021. Again, the local groups want to meet, and those, the 250, is a pretty reasonable number. And again, because of our size, we can have 250 in one ballroom, and 250 across in East and use technology to show the event.
PRENTICE: When you say local groups, are you talking about associations, clubs, reunions, things like that?
RICE: All of those. Most of the major fundraisers are held here because of our size. So again, several fundraisers still want to be here, but again, the local associations exactly, wedding receptions, that sort of thing. Although we don't do a lot of wedding receptions, but there are a couple that are looking.
PRENTICE: I know it's way down the road. Well, actually it's not too far down the road, but more than a few of us attend The Festival of Trees, you must be thinking about that on a fairly regular basis.
RICE: We're actually very excited. We've had the opportunity to have a couple of meetings with representatives from Festival of Trees. The start of the conversation was, "Gee, not sure what it's going to look like." And we've been focusing on what we can do, not what we can't, and that's the exciting part of the team that works here. The team is very focused on solutions. One of the things I'll throw out is, when you have a big event that's traditionally a gala based dinner, what about changing it up, doing a holiday stroll and using both buildings rather than one building. That will definitely allow for the physical distancing, we can do satellite food and beverage stations, again, following all the appropriate protocols.
PRENTICE: And tens of thousands of us, we just put it on our calendar, and it's just such a high profile, general public event.
RICE: It's one of the most iconic events in the city. And that's certainly not making light of any other event because we've been fortunate to have some pretty phenomenal things happen here. And we're very proud of the fact that we're hopefully a good, solid community neighbor and partner with a lot of these organizations. We're very proud of that. But again, Festival of Trees is just iconic and we'd really like to do what we can to ensure its continuity.
PRENTICE: Pat, best of luck to you. Stay safe, stay well. And we look forward to talking to you down the road.
RICE: George, thank you very much for the time and best wishes to you and your family.
Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren
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