Event planners facing difficult decisions

Wheels-N-Wings, PotatoFest fall to COVID-19

Area event planners have been in the unenviable position of canceling many popular large-scale events as the coronavirus pandemic continues — decisions that result in lost sleep, lost revenue and a disappointed public.

“We don’t make (cancellations) lightly. We waited as long as we could to decide,” Danea Koss, director of the Ebensburg Main Street Partnership, said of the decision this week to cancel PotatoFest, which had been planned for Sept. 19.

“This is the time when we would have to start incurring expenses for marketing, contacting vendors, buying supplies and ordering merchandise,” she explained.

PotatoFest is a one-day event that draws an estimated 20,000 people from a multi-state area, including New York, Ohio, Virginia and Maryland.

Ebensburg’s Wheels-N-Wings, which draws about 5,000 attendees, also has been canceled.

“There’s so much uncertainty,” Koss said, including whether the public is willing to attend events.

Mark Ickes, executive director of Explore Altoona, a destination marketing organization, said the last thing a community wants is to be a source of a surge or spike in coronavirus cases that could lead to a lingering “black eye” on the event or a town’s reputation.

Ickes and event organizers agree that social responsibility calls for caution and following scientific recommendations and guidelines. And, if they can’t, then canceling is necessary. Such was the case with Wheels-N-Wings and PotatoFest.

“Both events are very busy with large crowds,” Koss said. “There are so many people it’s hard to get through the streets.”

Social distancing — the required 6 feet of space between people — isn’t possible, and that is one of the guidelines event organizers must consider. Strict hygiene measures apply to shuttle buses, tables and chairs in eating areas, as well as portable potties and restroom cleanings. Event organizers as a whole are saying the risks are too great to the public’s health, and the health of staff and volunteers and their families.

Uncontrollable factors

When thousands of people attend an event, organizers said, too many factors are uncontrolled, such as compliance to mask-wearing, and where people are traveling from, a great concern as spikes in infection rates create “hot spots.”

The partnership is proceeding with smaller scale events, things that historically draw crowds with fewer than 250 people, such as the Concert in the Park series.

“We are better able to manage safety measures at a smaller event,” Koss said.

Providing a safe experience is a priority, organizers said.

“Even the smallest event has a lot of moving parts that are interdependent of each other,” Katrina Pope, director of Community Relations and Events for Hollidaysburg, said. “We want our attendees to feel safe attending community events … we want people to come together and be safe. But we are also keeping in mind everyone’s best interests, including those that are at higher risk, such as those who are immunocompromised.”

The PotatoFest joins American Legion Fair, Wheels and Wings, the Bedford County Fair and the Grange Fair in Centre County on an ever-growing list of coronavirus cancellations. Such large-scale events require months of planning, vendor contacts and monetary investments in marketing materials as well as the obvious physical preparations.

“These aren’t events that you can just put together in a week,” Pope said. Hollidaysburg is undecided on whether it will hold its annual PumpkinFest event in October.

“It’s a shame that we are canceling events that bring people into our communities and towns, but it’s an unprecedented year. We are hopeful that people can be understanding about the many cancelations,” Koss said.

Julie Fitzpatrick, executive director of Pennsylvania Downtown Center, said the organization has been holding virtual meetings and conferences as well as posting guidance on its website for Main Street programs. The center is a statewide nonprofit that helps communities with revitalization and Main Street programs. But because different areas are in different phases of re-opening, “Every location is different and each situation is unique. So each event is unique as well.”

For instance, the public may be confused as to why Farmers Markets are permitted under the restrictions.

Farmers Markets are regulated by the state Department of Health and Agriculture. As food providers, markets are deemed an essential service and are permitted.

Pope said that more Hollidaysburg residents have complained about the absence of food trucks at the farmers market than any other cancellation. In addition to a prohibition against food sampling and eating, the decision was also made in light of the struggles the brick and mortar eateries have been facing.

“A food truck can pick up and move, but our brick and mortar restaurants can’t,” Pope said. “We want to support them anyway we can. We don’t want to see them shuttered permanently.”

Explore Altoona’s Ickes recently participated in a virtual panel hosted by the Pennsylvania Downtown Center and shared travel industry surveys that showed people are reluctant to travel large distances due to COVID-19-associated health risks.

Ickes said that according to SKIFT, a leader in the communications of global travel news and trends, 48% of a group of attendees at national meeting said they were not planning to attend live events personally until Oct. 1 at the earliest, and 39% said they wouldn’t until after Jan. 1, 2021.

Instead of traveling long distances, industry surveys indicate more people are comfortable with day trips to outdoor recreation spots and green spaces to enjoy calm, quiet experiences.

“Blair County is positioned somewhat strongly because of various factors, most notably, our destination is not known for overwhelmingly large crowds, and we are known to have excellent outdoor spaces and recreation. Both of these factors could potentially lead to a perception of our area being more appropriately socially distant,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.


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