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College Fair tops new event cancellations as coronavirus scare affects bookings

The COVID-19 scare has begun to affect the convention and events business in Buffalo.

Visit Buffalo Niagara received word Tuesday of the cancellation of an upcoming event in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, as well as the postponement of an event that was supposed to take place in May in a Buffalo hotel.

The Buffalo Niagara College Fair, a showcase for colleges and universities scheduled for March 18 and 19 at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, has been cancelled. The National Association for College Admission Counseling said it canceled the Buffalo event and seven others around the country due to "heightened concern" about the coronavirus outbreak.

For local organizers of the event, who spend months planning and coordinating it, the cancellation was a disappointment.

The event draws 6,000 to 8,000 people each year, over the course of two daytime sessions and one night session at the convention center, said Harry Gong, Niagara University registrar and a co-chairman of the local organizing team.

Ninety-six high schools - a record high - had signed up to bus their students to the event, and about 200 colleges, from all over the U.S. as well as from China and Europe, had registered to be there.

The event gives students a chance to have personal conversations with representatives of a wide range of colleges, rather than just making contact digitally. The students were due to come from all over the region, from as far away as Chautauqua County.

“It’s a shame,” Gong said. “I think it’s going to be a real hole for this class [of students]. We can’t just postpone it and reschedule it.”

But even before the NACAC pulled the plug, Gong was starting to hear from some high schools that were deciding against bringing their students to the convention center.

Patrick Kaler, president and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara, declined to disclose details of the events affected.

He said the convention center event, which would have brought about 500 people to Buffalo, may be rebooked for a future year and that the hotel event is being rescheduled for this September.

"The clients are citing the governor's state of emergency as their rationale," Kaler said.

The two events are the first major ones in the region to fall victim to concerns over the virus.

"We have 15 different events that'll be taking place between March and the end of May" at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, Kaler said. "It's a mixture of local events, public events, and then we also have 32 sporting events ... hockey tournaments and things like that."

The Buffalo Home Show started last weekend and continues this weekend in the convention center. Though official figures aren't in, Kaler said, last weekend's attendance didn't seem smaller.

Paul Snyder Sr., whose Snyder Corp. owns the Hyatt Regency Buffalo, said his hotel received 15 cancellations on Tuesday alone, costing the hotel $80,000 worth of business. The cancellations were a mix of individuals and groups.

“It’s increasing very fast, that’s our concern,” Snyder said. “Last week, we had a few and this week, it’s way more.”

Some other organizations and companies have notified the hotel that if things get worse, they might cancel their bookings, too, he said.

“It’s a very serious thing with us,” Snyder said. “We’ve been open for 40 years and there’s never been anything like this before.”

Snyder said he wants to see city and county officials give more attention to the hospitality industry’s struggles amid the outbreak. “The hospitality industry, along with transportation, are getting decimated right now. And it’s getting worse by the day.”

Upcoming major events in Buffalo include the Buffalo Motorama, April 9-11; Nickel City Con, a comic book show, May 15-17; and the Buffalo Marathon, May 24.

(Erie County)

"Health remains our top priority. We're open and ready to welcome visitors best we can, like we always do," Kaler said.

The New York Public High School Athletic Association's hockey championships at the LECOM HarborCenter this weekend will be played without fans present. That restriction could put a dent into the number of people who travel to Buffalo and stay overnight for the games.

Jason J. Murgia, general manager of the Conference and Events Center Niagara Falls, said Tuesday that no events at his venue have been scrubbed so far.

"We are heavily booked. We just accepted an event for next week for 600 people," he said, referring to a regional Head Start conference.

Murgia said he's heard from one organizer about a possible event postponement, but so far no change has been made.

Andrea Czopp, vice president of operations for Destination Niagara USA, said she's heard of a couple of events in April and May, at least one at a Niagara Falls hotel, whose organizers are "examining their options."

"The safety and well-being of our guests is our top priority," Murgia said.

He said event planners have called to ask what efforts the Conference Center is making to reduce the virus threat.

"What we've done now is making sure our cleaning procedures are thorough and comprehensive and that we are following all the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control," Murgia said. "In addition to that, our staff has increased the frequency of our efforts to disinfect and sanitize high-touch surfaces, the desks, the bathrooms, the doorknobs."

Hand sanitizer dispensers and warning signs are posted around the building.

The Conference and Events Center Niagara Falls is "coming off our best year ever in 2019," Murgia said.

Last week a local event that drew 800 people "went off without a hitch. This past Saturday we had 700 people from around the state, a teachers' association group," Murgia said.

On Friday, the Conference Center expects to draw 2,000 people to a public St. Patrick's Day party hosted by the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

The center also will be hosting a regional dance competition on weekends from late March through April, including dancers from Canada.

Czopp said the precedent of the SARS outbreak in 2003 showed international travel fell that year, with fewer foreigners, especially Chinese, coming to Niagara Falls, and fewer Americans leaving the country.

Assuming that may happen again, Czopp said, Destination Niagara USA is beefing up its domestic promotion efforts for this summer.

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