Conventions are making a comeback in Massachusetts

Conventions are making a comeback where the books at the state’s largest event halls boast the busiest season in five years.

“We’re definitely climbing back up,” said David Gibbons, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm and a huge amount of pent up demand. People want to get back. There’s definitely a desire and a want to get back to meetings.”

Conventions resumed last July and Gibbons said it’s been a gradual ramp-up. With 118 events already booked, Gibbons said it’s the authority’s busiest season since the 2015-16 fiscal year. This year will see the return of the New England Boat Show, the Seafood Expo North America and PAX East, to name a few.

But even as events return, Massachusetts Convention Center Authority officials said attendance still lags, with slightly more than half the number of participants that was typical before the pandemic. Attendance has hovered around 55% to 65% at every event so far, Gibbons said.

And the revenue continues to suffer for it. The convention center authority is projecting $47 million in revenue to come in during the current fiscal year that ends on June 30.

That’s almost three times the $17.9 million the authority pulled in during the height of the pandemic in the previous fiscal year, but still shy of the $80.2 million it earned during its last full pre-pandemic year in fiscal 2019. MCCA eared $57 million in fiscal 2020, which ended on June 30 of that year.

“We have the bookings. Now the question is will the shows produce?” Gibbons said.

For attendance to rebound, Gibbons said “it’s about finding confidence.” He’s hopeful consumer confidence will climb and people will once again feel comfortable attending convention shows.

“Next year I think we’ll get halfway back and 2024, I think, will be very strong,” Gibbons predicted. International travel — still down from the pandemic — accounts for up to 25% of convention business.

The convention center authority’s venues typically operate at a deficit, subsidized by tourism-related taxes on lodging, car rentals and services. Events held at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center and the Hynes Convention Center in Boston and Mass Mutual in Springfield attract thousands of out-of-state and international visitors and are seen as major economic driver for the region.

In 2019, the convention center authority generated an estimated $870 million for the state economy from travelers who dined in local restaurants, shopped main streets and slept in nearby hotels.

But the convention business was among the industries hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We flatlined basically. It was a massive hit,” Gibbons said. Revenue from the Boston Common garage and federal reimbursement helped keep the authority’s losses down, he added.

The authority also still plans to eventually sell the Hynes Convention Center, though there is no clear timeline and it’s unclear how that will play out with Gov. Charlie Baker, a proponent of the sale, leaving office next January.