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Think Iowa City president discusses lack of conventions, sporting events during coronavirus

'Dramatic' loss in events creates challenge for small businesses, local governments alike

Josh Schamberger is photographed Sept. 3 on the roof of 30hop in front of the Drury Inn & Suites in the Iowa River Landi
Josh Schamberger is photographed Sept. 3 on the roof of 30hop in front of the Drury Inn & Suites in the Iowa River Landing in Coralville. Schamberger, president of Think Iowa City, says the coronavirus has dealt a huge blow to hotel-motel tax revenue. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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In a normal year, Coralville may bring in more than $3 million from hotel-motel taxes.

“It’s a huge part of the local economy,” said Josh Schamberger, president of Think Iowa City, which is the convention and visitors bureau for Iowa City and Coralville.

This fiscal year, Schamberger expects Coralville to get about a third of that as the area misses out on hundreds of conventions, meetings and other events.

Schamberger has been one of the people trying to make sure cities get at least some of that revenue during the pandemic.

He recently spoke with The Gazette about bringing in events during a pandemic, the impact of no spectators for Hawkeye sports and how soon he anticipates seeing events return.

Q: How has coronavirus changed the process of attracting events and people to the area?

A: “It’s been pretty dramatic to say the least. There are many areas of business or markets that we go after that still haven’t come back. And there’s really not a timeline as to when that particular business is going to come back. An example of that would certainly be conventions and meetings. Some of our hardest-hit hotels really in the Corridor and around the country are those conference and meeting spaces — those larger full-service properties that have meeting space. Until there’s a full vaccine rollout and we’ve really, truly turned the corner, I think we’re really not going to see corporations and organizations hosting large-scale, in-person, face-to-face conferences and meetings in these hotels. ... On the other hand, there are some amateur sports, and that particular business has started to pick up a little bit, but it can really only be done with a lot of protocols put into place as far as masks, separation or sort of a bubble environment, which is how we were able to pull off Senior Nationals last October with USA Wrestling.”

Q: What impact has the lack of fans for Iowa’s football, basketball and wrestling seasons had on the area?

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A: “That has been a major blow to the local economy. There’s a tremendous amount of local small businesses — from restaurants to retailers, to hoteliers — who have come to rely on the UI athletic seasons. ... Wrestling is certainly the favorite to win a national title, and basketball is in the mix, and so with that enthusiasm, it brings a significant amount of people and business to the community. By and large, everybody’s really just trying to survive and get to the next month.”

Q: Now that Xtream Arena is open, how can you take advantage of that while still in a pandemic?

A: “Two years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago, if somebody would’ve said there would’ve been a pandemic this particular year, we probably would’ve delayed another two years, but you do what you can do with the cards you’ve been dealt with. ... We just held the girls’ state wrestling tournament there and have kind of figured out how to do those sort of smaller sporting events, but as it relates to concerts and shows and traditional arena-like activities, it’s going to be a while.”

Q: When do you think the arena will begin to have larger events?

A: “I really personally believe it’s going to be a couple years before we’re back kind of humming along. Each market is going to come back at its own pace. ... We do have artists and programming that are holding dates this summer. Those pieces of business haven’t been announced yet, but that’s a good sign. ... We’ll just have to see how quickly things can move along with the new (Biden) administration and the vaccine.”

Comments: (319) 398-8394; john.steppe@thegazette.com

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