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Back to the ballrooms: NM events show signs of revival

Housekeeping supervisor, Cindy Lujan vacuums the hallways leading to the meeting rooms for the Hotel Albuquerque at old town. Wednesday April, 07 , 2021.(Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Like many other organizations, Economic Forum of Albuquerque moved its long-running morning speaker series online after the COVID-19 pandemic reached New Mexico, trading in-person breakfasts at Hotel Albuquerque at Old Town for computer screens.

Economic Forum executive director Bob Murphy said the virtual meetings have gone well, but remain a poor substitute for more than 100 business leaders interacting in person.

Bob Murphy

“As much as a webinar lets you get a message out, it just doesn’t lend itself well to feedback and a general ability to communicate,” Murphy told the Journal.

That’s why, more than a year later, the organization has announced a return to in-person gatherings, tentatively scheduled to begin May 26 with a presentation from Pat Vincent-Collawn of PNM Resources.

From left, Chris Olivas, housekeeping manager, and Francisco Hernandez, assistant chief engineer, work Wednesday on a lighting fixture at Hotel Albuquerque at Old Town. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Murphy said safety is a priority, and the in-person meetings will be delayed if there’s a spike in cases, but he stressed the importance of returning to live gatherings.

“We very much value our members’ health and safety, so we don’t want to do anything obnoxious,” Murphy said. “But we do think it’s time to move along in that direction.”

The Pavilion and Spanish Gardens outdoor venue at Hotel Albuquerque at Old Town.

Economic Forum is just one organization, but it’s part of a larger trend toward returning to in-person events as COVID-19 cases drop and New Mexicans continue to get vaccinated. Hotel operators and others in the tourism industry have reported more interest in in-person events, especially weddings.

Yancy Sturgeon

“People are feeling a little bit more comfortable now that the shots are being introduced, and some type of normality is coming back into play,” said Yancy Sturgeon, managing director at Hotel Parq Central.

The recent uptick has given hope to an industry that has been hammered by delays and cancellations. But some in the tourism industry feel New Mexico’s continued restrictions on gatherings are still making life too hard on the industry.

“Overall, as New Mexico has continued to maintain its restrictive conditions, there is a lot of economic damage that’s continuing to impact the hospitality industry,” said Jim Long, CEO of Heritage Hotels & Resorts.

Jim Long

Long, hard road for NM’s meetings industry

Events, ranging from small gatherings to massive conventions, played a large role in Albuquerque’s pre-pandemic tourism economy, but state restrictions, mandatory quarantines and fear about contracting the virus prompted a slew of postponements and cancellations.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 144 groups with 129,479 estimated attendees have canceled or postponed events or meetings slated to be held in Albuquerque, according to numbers from Visit Albuquerque. That amounts to a loss of 138,522 nights spent in hotel rooms and $67.4 million in direct spend, according to the organization.

Beyond the monetary impact, Visit Albuquerque president and CEO Tania Armenta said large events bring foot traffic to Downtown and can help attract

Tania Armenta

businesses and leaders from other markets to Albuquerque.

“When we have the chance to share our community with them, it can lead to people moving here,” Armenta said.

Currently, state guidelines prohibit large gatherings in the state’s largest population centers. Bernalillo and Doña Ana counties both remain in the yellow tier in the state’s red-to-turquoise framework as of Wednesday, which limits mass gatherings to 10 people or fewer.

Long and Armenta both expressed frustration with the restrictions. Long said the restrictions create a patchwork across the state and make it difficult for large hotels to host gatherings at any level. Armenta said the restrictions contribute to a “lack of clarity” for out-of-state event organizers.

“I think for us here in New Mexico, there’s still significant uncertainty,” Armenta said.

Molly Ryckman

Molly Ryckman, vice president of sales and marketing for Heritage Hotels, said the restrictions have been particularly challenging for properties like Hotel Albuquerque and Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces, which boast large event spaces that comprise a significant chunk of their usual revenue.

Ryckman said Hotel Albuquerque derived 60% of its revenue from meetings and events during better times.

“Obviously, from an economic standpoint, it’s been a struggle,” Ryckman said.

In Santa Fe County, which moved into the turquoise tier and can host gatherings of up to 150 people, the city’s tourism director is urging caution despite optimism about the loosened restrictions. Randy Randall, executive director of Tourism Santa Fe, said the organization is offering marketing and support for the industry, but stressed the need to continue wearing masks and abiding by remaining restrictions.

“The goal was to get to turquoise,” Randall said. “Now that we’re there, it feels good, and now the goal has to be to stay there.”

Light at the end of the tunnel?

Despite the challenges, leaders agreed that there are reasons for excitement about events returning to New Mexico.

Armenta said she’s optimistic about the national landscape, with in-person meetings returning in other states and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issuing a recent statement saying fully vaccinated people can travel at low risk to themselves.

“We know that that will be a tipping point in the industry,” Armenta said.

Sturgeon, with Parq Central, said the number of people calling about using the hotel for weddings, birthdays and other celebrations has grown from about once a week to two or three times per day since mid-February.

While the 74-room hotel doesn’t have the space to handle large indoor events even without state restrictions, Sturgeon said the Apothecary Lounge, Parq Central’s rooftop bar, gives the hotel flexibility once the restrictions lift.

Randy Randall

Safety remains the priority, but Sturgeon said adding more events to the schedule should allow the hotel to bring back employees, after it shed the majority of its pre-pandemic workforce.

“With the uptick in possible visits, obviously we’re anticipating to open more services and get employees back in here,” Sturgeon said.

Randall added that people who had to postpone weddings and other events in 2020 have been among the first to return now that restrictions have been eased in Santa Fe.

The rooftop Apothecary Lounge at Hotel Parq Central. Slowly but surely, in-person events are returning to New Mexico’s hotels.

“We’re excited about getting back in business,” Randall said.

While leisure travel is starting to return, Randall said meetings and conventions may take a while to follow suit. He said the restrictions have prompted meeting planners to look at other states for meetings in 2021.

The city has seen more interest from out-of-state meeting planners recently, but Randall said it’s largely for 2022 and even 2023.

“It is a transition process,” Randall said. “It’s not like we’re going to suddenly throw open our doors and be full again.”

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