The omicron variant of COVID-19 is driving illness in Dallas to record highs as the events and hospitality industry enters a third year of navigating pandemic disruptions.
The new variant is considered by some experts to now be the most transmissible virus in history, surpassing the infectiousness of even the bubonic plague. In Dallas, decimated hospital staff are struggling under the ongoing pressure to care for COVID-19 patients.
Amid the surge, companies must decide whether to hold events they planned or cancel them.
On Friday, the city of Arlington postponed its four-day lineup of Martin Luther King Jr. Day festivities.
At the city-owned Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center this week, the Dallas Safari Club is forging ahead with its first in-person annual conference in Dallas since 2019. The event is the hunting and conservation nonprofit’s main source of funding.
In the crowds of camouflage, cowboy hats and boots shuffling between vendor tables, few attendees opted to wear masks besides convention center staff. Signs placed around the venue by the convention center encourage masking and social distancing.
Stationed at the end of a row of vendor booths on the trade hall floor was Utah-based sculpture artist Raymond Gibby, surrounded by the artwork he had on sale.
“I’ve done the show circuit, I’ve done the gallery thing. … I’ve tried to do online. I work all of them, and I get by. You take away one of those elements and I don’t get by anymore,” Gibby said.
Usually, the conference is one of the larger hunting conferences in the world and pulls an international clientele. This year, not all travelers could make it due to travel restrictions in some places of the world, Gibby said.
“Anybody who’s here feels like it’s OK to be here,” Gibby said.
The events industry and tourist revenues tanked at the start of the pandemic, and various stakeholders have been working to get business back off the ground since 2020, when hotel occupancy bottomed out.
VisitDallas is one of those stakeholders, tasked with marketing Dallas as a tourism destination as the city has attempted to restart events at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center over the last year and a half.
From March 2020 to March 2021, Dallas lost 584 conventions amounting to a $990 million loss, VisitDallas CEO Craig Davis said.
Hotel occupancy had fallen from an average of 70% to just 21.7% in April 2020. Hotel and local business revenues suffered, dragging city tax revenues down with them.
Davis said the 2022 events calendar is shaping up to be a strong one and tourism revenue could recover to pre-pandemic levels in 2023, according to research firm Oxford Economics’ tourism arm.
In Texas, state mandates banning mask and vaccine requirements place much of the onus for safety in the hands of individuals amid the latest surge of COVID-19.
The lax approach to pandemic mitigation has nonetheless energized the recovery of tourism in the city, Davis said.
Like Dallas, just about every convention center in the country has reopened and is hosting events even if approaches to capacity limits and other preventive measures differ from state to state, Davis said.
“We have really risen during the pandemic because we are perceived as being more open,” Davis said. “[Organizations] felt that if we did say that we would host them, and we signed a contract, that we would actually honor the contract.”