What happens to a convention center when no one’s convening?
It’s a question Paul Cramer considered early on during the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., well before the virus reached Athens, Georgia, some 70 miles east of Atlanta. Cramer is president and CEO of The Classic Center Authority, the governing body that oversees Athens’ 370,000-square-foot convention center. The answer, in this case, was to turn the venue into an assembly site for high-tech sanitation stations.
That solution wasn’t obvious at first, but Cramer knew they would need to act fast. He assembled an internal task force to research ways The Classic Center could serve as a community resource during the pandemic.
“I knew this would have a significant impact on the hospitality and tourism industry when — not if — it began affecting us directly,” he says.
On Friday, March 13, a county-wide ban on gatherings of more than 500 people went into effect. Over the weekend, that number dropped to 100 and then to 10 by Monday morning. The center canceled or postponed everything scheduled through the end of the month.
“In that day alone, we lost $1.2 million dollars of business,” Cramer says. “I immediately started reviewing the annual budget in an attempt to preserve as much of my staff as I could. My entire leadership team, myself included, took a significant cut in pay, and most full-time, salaried employees were reduced to a four-day work week.”
But those changes weren’t enough, and layoffs were inevitable.
“I was very worried,” recalls Tim DeMott, general manager of the convention center. “I have a team of more than 50 people who rely on events at The Classic Center to put food on their table. I knew that the sudden loss in business would have a significant impact on a majority of those individuals.”
Meanwhile, the task force, expanded to include business owners and government officials, was trying to figure out what to do. They tried offering the facility to hospitals and the state but were declined. Finally, they hit upon an unconventional idea. They could use the space to produce portable disinfectant machines that fight the virus head-on.
“It was really amazing,” Cramer remembers. “It was a Saturday morning conference call at 9 o’clock. We got on the call, and we all started talking about what we were doing or what we could do. I said … ‘Our building is a public building. We want to help, and we are virtually empty for the next two months. I have a great warehouse-like exhibit hall, and I have loading docks, and I have forklifts. So if I can be of service, please, anybody, put me to work.’”
Ryan Thornton, with the county Economic Development Department, was also on the call and took Cramer at his word. He knew of a company, ByoPlanet International, that manufactured disinfectant spray systems to fight pathogens. They were ramping up production of the units in response to the crisis but didn’t have enough space to keep up with demand. Thornton put Cramer in touch with Whitworth Land Corporation, the real estate firm helping ByoPlanet find an assembly site. That Monday, a partnership between the company and convention center formed, providing ByoPlanet plenty of room to assemble their sanitation units.
“They hope to produce 10,000 units during their residence at The Classic Center and will begin distribution as soon as the products are assembled,” Cramer says.
The units, which have been deployed in hospitals, schools and cruise ships to prevent the spread of illness, use an electrostatic spray technology that effectively covers all surfaces. That’s particularly important when it comes to the novel coronavirus, which can survive on hard surfaces for up to 72 hours. The Georgia Department of Public Health currently reports 54 coronavirus cases in Clarke County, but that number is rising daily.
Work to repurpose the building for its new role began March 24. Organizers mapped out logistics to keep the space clean and allow for appropriate social distancing during assembly. Today, the downtown convention center, previously host to weddings, musicals, hockey tournaments and boat shows, is more like a factory, at least in the Grand Hall, where three double-sided assembly lines and a central conveyor belt fill the 24,300-square-foot room.
Just as critical, the initiative will bolster the local economy as well.
“This partnership between The Classic Center and ByoPlanet International is an incredible relief,” says DeMott, adding that he’s seen several small businesses in Athens close recently. “Not only does this opportunity provide jobs at a time when they are scarily difficult to come by, but that employment is directly helping to combat COVID-19. How often do you have an opportunity to completely shift gears to help aid in relief efforts both for your team, your community, and your entire country?”
Work for at least 40 laid-off convention center personnel — about 40 percent of those laid off due to the pandemic — is guaranteed as part of the contract. ByoPlanet has also agreed to use the in-house caterer for any food needs and local hotels as lodging for their staff. All of this provides critical revenue to a struggling industry. Hospitality is a major employer in the county, comprising some 3,000 jobs, according to a 2018 study by the U.S. Travel Association.
As citizens shelter in place, The Classic Center team is still brainstorming ways to support locals during the COVID-19 outbreak. Their newest idea is a virtual battle of the bands, entertainment for those stuck at home in self-quarantine. The convention center is accepting submissions for the concert series, which will be live-streamed two nights a week on YouTube as a fundraiser for out-of-work entertainers and hospitality professionals. Local organizations like the chamber of commerce, Terrapin Beer Co., and AthFest, the city’s annual summer music festival, are pitching in to help with planning and promotion.
But sanitation stations and concerts are only the beginning.
“It seems like every day there’s another idea we’re exploring,” DeMott says. “We are looking at everything as creatively and thoroughly as we can.”
DeMott says he believes the convention center and Athens as a whole has an important role to play in defeating the virus, from both a health and economic perspective. Despite everything, he remains optimistic.
“Athens is an incredible city,” he says. “We adapt, we fight, and we will always succeed. I am confident with such a driving spirit, we will persevere.”
Cheryl Rodewig got her start in journalism shadowing soldiers on field training, where she learned the value of quick camera reflexes. Now, she's a marketer, speaker and award-winning feature writer published with USA Today, Fodor’s, MarketWatch and more. She currently lives in the Tampa Bay area by way of Atlanta and Nimes, France.