(Editor’s Note: The following is a Q&A with Jeff Johnson, Executive Director of the Minneapolis Convention Center [MCC]. Like other convention centers around the country, his addresses the issues of opening back up to new standards as a result of COVID-19.)
By Kathy McCarthy
What new policies and procedures has the MCC implemented to reassure visitors of a safe and healthy experience MCC Plaza Redesign in the COVID era?
The MCC has always been known for its professional staff that provide great service and implements industry leading policies and procedures. Our cleaning practices have been a hallmark of our success and something that clients and attendees historically rate as a competitive advantage for the MCC. We are taking our cleaning to a higher level and have implemented more sanitation components to our cleaning. Our information can be found on our website for specifics.
We also created our operational plan to comply with the Stay Safe MN Plan. The details can be found here. Our staff has redrawn room sets based on physical distancing guidelines for all of our spaces, and we have redesigned how attendees interact with our building through signage and crowd management resources. As part of our plan, each client must work with MCC staff to create an approved COVID-19 plan. This plan will be implemented in conjunction with our overall plan and gives us the flexibility to serve each event’s individual needs. Health screenings, the mask mandate, and controlled entrances are the headlines, but many other plans address how we will work to keep everyone safe.
During this unplanned slowdown, you’ve completed some major projects that will make a big splash once the MCC reopens. Can you tell us about them?
Our most stunning project to the outside world is our renovation of the MCC Plaza which sits just across the street from our facility. This new outdoor space will be more welcoming, more event ready and more sustainably appropriate for our campus. New lighting will help keep the space bright and inviting. Seating will be placed closer to our main entrance and consist of more movable, social pieces that help our guests continue their networking and relationship building outside of our walls. It will also serve as a better event space with increased electrical distribution and improved flat space for catering, production and socialization. The space will also be more sustainable with a new pollinator meadow with wildflowers, and all of our new plantings will be irrigated from rain water collected from our roof.
Our most visible inside project is the new terrazzo floor that now spans the entire first level. The new floor has a more modern design that complements the many updates that have been made to our facility and it will be more durable. Within the terrazzo are inlayed images of activities that residents of Minneapolis enjoy in our great city. Sailing, fishing, snow shoeing, cross country skiing, plus other activities give our floor some Minneapolis personality while also acting as wayfinding markers for our large venue.
Over the last several years, the convention center has made a huge commitment to reducing our energy usage, and 100% of our electricity usage is offset by renewable resources either through our larger solar array or through a wind energy program with Xcel Energy. The MCC has also reduced its electrical consumption by 15% through conservation techniques like installing LED lighting. This year we were able replace all lighting in our 87 meeting rooms with LED lights. This saves energy and will provide more consistent, dimmable lighting in the space at a more appealing color temperature.
What are some of the trends in meeting preparedness that you have discussed with some of your peers in convention center world?
Obviously, one trend that all meetings and convention centers are dealing with is safety. Not only is this safety from the pandemic, but it is also travel safety during a time of civil unrest across the country. Meet Minneapolis and the convention center have been very proactive in discussing these issues with our clients and providing answers to their public safety questions on the Meet Minneapolis website.
Technology is rushing into our marketplace, and it is difficult to know what technology is a good investment and which is not a long-lasting solution. Security and screening technology along with cleaning technology are the most talked about areas, but other technologies that help with virtual registration, timed ticketing and queuing may be just as important. How we use our building – especially our public lobbies – will be a challenge going forward that may need technology to solve it.
The single most talked about trend is the challenge for all convention centers with a complete collapse of our funding models. Most convention centers are funded through a combination of operating revenues and hospitality-based use taxes. As events cancel, operating revenue dissolves. As travel and activity evaporates, the taxing mechanism fails to provide the needed funds to pay for the infrastructure a large facility like a convention center needs. The MCC has been in a really strong financial position for decades which has helped us weather the storm in 2020. Most convention centers do not have the same situation. If this double whammy of revenue shortfalls persists through 2021, even the strongest convention centers will face serious financial challenges especially related to debt payments. Many in our industry are worried and looking to state and federal agencies for help.
You have often referred to the MCC as a relationship building. What ways can the MCC be a catalyst for bringing our community and nation back together for meetings and events?
There is no better time for human beings to take the time to listen and learn about each other’s lives and challenges. The pandemic has forced us into solitude while confining us to our small familial/friend groups that tend to be homogenous. It is only when we step outside what is comfortable, to learn about others, that our minds and actions can grow and change. There are some really tough challenges and discussions ahead. These discussions don’t work well over a video call. The true emotion and feeling that you get from the presence of another human being brings understanding of their situation and allows you to show your own humanity. I believe that human beings need to be together for art, sports, music, entertainment, work, learning, and growth. Once it is safe again, I hope the MCC can be a gathering place for understanding as we strive to help foster change in our country. Relationships that we build with our guests and clients as service professionals will bring confidence to those that are ready to return to in-person meetings. It is critical that our building helps build those broader relationships in our country and community.
What does the future hold for the MCC in the next 8-12 month?
I wish that I knew the answer. So much changes each day, and we seem to be fighting a battle with the unknown. We continue to plan for hosting large events. Realistically, it will be a slow return towards something closer to normal. Many of our events have moved to a future date so the near term is not positive, but next year could see decent event activity. The economy and the confidence of attendees to return to in-person meetings will really depend on so many factors, leading with a viable vaccine. Fortunately, we still have great demand for the future and groups wanting to continue to host their events at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The road to that future may take a while, but I feel strongly that Minneapolis is a great hospitality city that will only become a better destination for meetings.
Kathy McCarthy is Director of Public Relations and Communications Meet Minneapolis, Convention & Visitors Association.