Mike Shuford, longtime executive director of the Chattanooga Convention Center, said the facility was on pace for a banner year with record revenues and record attendance. "Then the lights flipped off."
He said the final event was March 17, and the coronavirus threat has kept the spacious facility shuttered ever since.
Mr. Shuford is operating with a skeleton crew of half a dozen. "We have 76 of our staff on unemployment as of today," he said.
The schedule at the facility had been packed for months and years to come. Now the first possibility of an event is June 2 with a seminar featuring 30-40 attendees. Used to filling the facility with major meetings, Mr. Shuford said, "You take what you can get. We are going to have to learn to operate differently."
There will be a number of changes at events with rules about attendance limits and spacing. He said, "For one thing, I don't see buffets coming back anytime soon."
Mr. Shuford said there are several smaller, mainly local events, in the weeks afterward.
He said, "Many people still don't feel comfortable traveling and staying at hotels. The conventions will be the last thing to come back. I don't see them 100 percent returning unless there is a vaccine. We are all hoping that happens sooner rather than later."
Mr. Shuford said he and his staff are still competing to line up the big meetings, which are often booked several years out. The Mid-South Sign Association was to be here this year, but was cancelled and will not be made up. The group is already set to meet elsewhere next year. The center hopes to again get the sign group on its calendar in a future year.
The center director said the facility is getting by on reserves and by trimming costs way back. He said spending is down to around $200,000 per month "and we should be able to get by through the end of the year. Hopefully, things will start to pick up."
Normally, the Convention Center takes in from $400,000 to $800,000 a month and adds staff as needed.
Mr. Shuford said at this point he does not plan to ask the city for any additional financial help.