Coronavirus leads to 'unprecedented situation' for Chattanooga convention business

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Chairs and tables are seen stacked up as a banquet hall in the Chattanooga Convention Center is being flipped for another event after the annual Catholic Charities Dinner was cancelled on Thursday, March 12, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

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Over the course of two days, 14 groups pulled out of events with the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau, hitting the local economy with about $4.4 million in lost economic impact.

"This much has happened in the last two days for us," said Barry White, president and CEO of the bureau, on Thursday evening. "We'll probably see a similar pace until things settle out a little bit. It's just the unknown."

Most of the groups plan - or hope - to reschedule either later this year or next year, but they were all going to be here in the next two months, White said.

"We will feel the effects immediately," he said.

And the bad news just keeps arriving for people in the business of bringing people together.

Before midday Thursday, Mike Shuford had heard from two organizations pulling out of large events set for the coming days at the Chattanooga Trade and Convention Center.

"It's changing hourly right now as far as we're concerned," said Shuford, director of the center. "We had a staff meeting this morning and I told them this is unprecedented in my working career."

The annual Catholic Charities Dinner was set to draw about 250 people Thursday evening, and the room was ready, but that plan fell apart Thursday morning. "They're tearing it down right now," Shuford said.

The organization hopes to reschedule but hasn't settled on a date, said Jim Wogan, communications director for the diocese of Knoxville.

"We hope to reschedule prior to July 1 based on having a better understanding of where we're at with the virus and its impacts," he said.

The diocese hosted its dinner in Knoxville last week, but a lot has changed since then, Wogan said. "It's like every hour things change," he said.

The number of cases of COVID-19, the deadly respiratory virus affecting people worldwide, in Tennessee doubled Thursday, bringing the number to 18 confirmed cases.

According to the Tennessee Department of Health's daily update, the number went from 9 to 18 between Wednesday and Thursday afternoon, the same day Gov. Bill Lee declared a state of emergency in Tennessee.

Meanwhile, the regional Rotary convention set for next week was expected to bring 500-600 people to the Chattanooga Convention Center. It has been called off. And the center's calendar is chock-full over the next six weeks with gatherings Shuford expects will come apart as coronavirus closes schools and offices, disrupts courtrooms and sporting events, shuts down travel, and craters financial markets.

"We've got probably six or seven conventions in the next month-and-a-half with high school students - state conventions of future business leaders, Tennessee Skills," Shuford said. "They're not going to let kids from across the state attend a convention when schools are closed."

The Convention Center has about 55 full-time workers and staffs as many as 80 people when it needs to. Keeping those folks on the job as many hours as possible will be a priority, but it's hard to know how long these losses will keep coming, Shuford said.

"In our situation, we can probably float for two weeks," he said. "Our expenses don't really change. The power bill comes in, the insurance bill comes in. Those don't stop because you've got no business.

"It's an unprecedented situation that you just have to take it as it comes and do the best you can for as long as you can."

White said another important factor in visitor traffic is the spring break crowds the area counts on as a family friendly destination. "We are into family spring break season, which is a major peak season for us over the next four weeks," he said.

Major attractions in the area remain open - unless something changes, White said.

"Things are changing hourly and daily," he said. "We are monitoring and trying to respond and deal with each new change and make modifications."

The Rotary Club of Chattanooga, the city's largest civic club, has suspended its weekly lunch meetings for the next two weeks. The board will meet after that to determine reasonable next steps, club president Charlie Arant said.

"While we enjoy our weekly meetings and camaraderie with our fellow club members, we also realize that the close proximity could lead to inadvertently exposing some of our members to the virus," Arant said. "With this in mind, we're hopeful to come back stronger and healthier than ever in the coming weeks."

For Brian Elrod, the owner of Text Request, the cancellation of conferences all over the country puts a cramp in his business development plans.

"We go to about three big national shows a month," he said Thursday. "We had three cancel yesterday - one in San Antonio and two in Washington, D.C."

And he's not counting on being able to get back out any time to the shows where he and his team learn about the industries they want to attract to their platform, he said.

"I'm sure all of the April and May shows are at risk," he said. "I can't imagine the impact on the cities, the airlines, the vendors, everyone who's involved in these events."

Communities will feel the impact of these cancellations in everything from lost wages and taxes to the body blow to consumer confidence, White said.

"A lot of the really major issue is dealing with the unknown and how we balance the health and safety of our traveling community and our residents and guests without going into complete hysteria and shutting everything down," he said.

Contact Mary Fortune at or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.