Reopening the Economy is Scary… How One City is Reopening Safely and Reclaiming its Reputation of Great Business Meetings

By Astrid Zeppenfeld

and about 225 miles east of Kansas City, Missouri. Visitors often remember, most vividly, its quaint old town with the brick-lined streets and picturesque cafés. One can find all sorts of knick-knacks in the little mom-and-pop shops along Main Street. My mother, who lives abroad, likes to visit Main Street at least every other time she is in the area. In fact, she loves walking along the charming riverbanks and then sipping coffee along Main Street so much, she has –  on more than one occasion –  taken public transportation for all of the 25.7 miles from South Saint Louis to Saint Charles.

So, it is not surprising that Saint Charles is often at the top of the list for corporate business meetings or conventions, not only in restaurants and other venues (think Ameristar Casino, for instance) along Main Street and the river. The city also boasts a beautiful convention center, which offers over 83,000 square feet of flexible event space between its ballrooms, meeting and conference rooms, and the over 27,000 square foot exhibit hall.

The Novel Coronavirus and its Impact

When the country was hit with COVID-19 a few months ago and business gatherings got canceled for the time being, planners everywhere found themselves scrambling to find alternatives or, in many cases, to completely redesign any upcoming events. After the initial wait-and-see approach taken by many companies, states and cities started reopening their markets for business. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new guidelines to keep attendees safe at business functions. But what exactly do these mean? How can we go back to business-as-usual under these new restrictions? Everything from safety, transportation, and delays, to cost increases and event attendance, needs to be closely examined by both planners as well as venues.

Tennille Wanner, Director of Sales & Marketing at Saint Charles Convention Center, says that “venues are a little different from retail operations”, in terms of CDC-guidelines regarding the novel coronavirus, which previously shut everything down in March and April of this year. Saint Charles started reopening in the beginning of May, practicing social distancing under CDC guidelines in order to prevent any new outbreaks of the disease. Wanner explains, “We do so many different types of events, so we sometimes can fall into different types of guidelines, as it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation.” Makes sense in this case, as one can much more easily avoid coming close to another person in a retail store than at the same table during a business luncheon. Further, it is up to each individual whether he chooses to touch the same item in the store that another customer may or may not have touched before; if you choose to not touch the serving spoon to help yourself to food items, you will go hungry. But do not worry –  convention centers are instead choosing to offer prepackaged meals for the time being.

What it Looks Like in Practice at the Convention Center

“Additionally, there are guidelines on how many people can be in certain spaces”, Wanner elaborates. “Convention centers have to provide social-distancing room sets, meaning that we now have two people at an 8-ft classroom table, instead of three people we might have had in the past. The tables are also spaced apart six feet, instead of three. If we have a 72-in banquet round, in the past we would have had eight to ten people at that banquet round, whereas now we have four.”

Jennifer Mobley, CDS, Director of Global Accounts at ConferenceDirect, has a clear picture of what she can expect at the national dance competition taking place at the Saint Charles Convention Center at the end of June. After a large portion of her clients canceled or postponed their spring competitions, Mobley has a solid plan in place for Talent On Parade. In working closely with her venue, this planner will ensure social distancing by changing the competition slightly. She explains, “Each individual studio will be competing in blocks. The spaced chairs can be cleaned in between studios.” Mobley adds, “I have one client who is thinking about maybe limiting the spectators, as in only one parent per dancer.” While this practice would limit the ability for entire families to cheer on a youth athlete, it may just be the right thing to do at this time. And with the reopening of restaurants, shops, and cafés on Main Street, families can still meet up for a fun time after the dance competition while keeping other competitors and their families safe.

Saint Charles is Still a Family Destination

Joanie Ohlms, Director of Sales for Greater Saint Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau, describes how the city itself is adhering to CDC-guidelines, “Some restaurants and shops decided to reopen; others had done curbside and pickup since March and are continuing to do that and dine-in, using the regulations in the restaurant consistent with everyone else by moving the tables six feet apart, utilizing their outdoor patio, etc.” In terms of shopping on Main Street, Ohlms explains, “Some of the shops that have reopened have a one-way aisle of people coming in and a different one of people going out and only so many people per square foot can come into the shop or restaurant.”

Having reopened more than a month ago and not seen a significant increase in COVID-19 cases in Saint Charles County, it seems like Saint Charles is well on its way back to the splendor we know and appreciate for both personal and business gatherings. When asked about what brings planners back to Saint Charles again and again, Ohlms suggests, “Our convention planners and attendees love it because there are so many unique dining and shopping opportunities, tours and other experiences to enjoy during their free time.”

It is a destination worth considering for your future meetings. Stay healthy!


Astrid Zeppenfeld is a writer and MM&E’s editor/business development manager from St. Louis.

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