A robotics competition expected to bring 6,000 visitors to Fresno's Convention Center has been postponed. Photo by David Castellon

published on March 13, 2020 - 2:55 PM
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For operators of hotels, restaurants and gas stations — along with ride-share drivers, caterers and other businesses serving tourists in the Fresno area — this weekend likely will be a tough one.

The 9th Annual Central Valley Regional FIRST Robotic competition, billed as a “high-energy, high-tech spectator sporting event,” was scheduled to run today and Saturday at the Fresno Convention Center.

Normally, the event brings in about 6,000 participants and spectators, most of them filling rooms at local hotels and patronizing restaurants and other businesses.

But that changed on Thursday, when it was announced the robotics event was postponed.

The spread of COVID-19 has been so fast and far reaching that across the globe it has sparked travel bans and even quarantines of entire communities.

Thursday brought a flurry of national announcements in response to the potentially deadly virus.

Organizers of Friday’s 2020 Social Enterprise Expo at Cornerstone Coffee Co. in Downtown Fresno had considered cancelling the event spotlighting socially-conscious local businesses, but after consulting with officials at Fresno Pacific University — putting on the event though its Center for Community Transformation — and the Fresno County Department of Public Health, they decided that with less than 250 people expected to attend, it was relatively safe to go forward.

Still, a lot of people there greeted each other with fist and elbow bumps rather than shaking hands.

Amid all the news Thursday came the announcement about the Robotics event, even though some involved already had checked into hotels here, said Layla Forstedt, president and CEO of the Fresno/Clovis Convention & Visitors Bureau, which works to bring events to the area that generate local hotel stays.

“Of course, when you don’t bring hotels and tourists in, it affects everybody,” she said, adding that even events that aren’t high profile can bring in thousands of people, and losing them can hurt businesses here.

This weekend was made worse because the California USA Wrestling event for youths that had been scheduled today through Sunday at Selland Arena also was postponed.

“That’s a huge room-generating event” that was expected to bring in another 10,000 visitors, Forstedt said. “They stay at about 15 hotels.

“Fortunately, they’ve rebooked this event for June,” she said, adding there are concerns that if the pandemic doesn’t improve by then delayed events may not happen.

As for Robotics, Forstedt said, “they’re rebooking, but I don’t know the date yet.”

“This is going to hit us hard in March,” which essentially is the start of the Valley’s tourism season, as the number of travelers here tends to pick up after the usual winter lull and ahead of the peak summer season, she noted.

As for what’s next, Forstedt said it’s hard to predict, as changes sprouting from the coronavirus and the reactions of governments around the world are coming fast.

In fact, she said, on Wednesday no major Fresno events had been canceled, but all that changed on a “crazy day” Thursday.

Still, Forstedt said, “We’ve been pretty fortunate,” as most people coming to Valley events drive here, while San Francisco, Los Angeles and other larger cities tend to have more “fly-in” participants, many from overseas, and their travel to those events are being much more affected by travel bans and overseas travel concerns, Forstedt explained.

“We are concerned in May because we have a [California Interscholastic Federation] event that’s swim and dive” at multiple local high schools expected to bring in about 5,000 people, though no word if it may be cancelled or delayed has yet to come out, she said.

Fortunately, Forstedt, whose organization is funded by Fresno and Clovis hotel operators, said that so far hotel operators she has spoken with aren’t reporting that bookings are down or cancellations are up for people involved in business or leisure travel here not related to the cancelled events.

While data on the number of travelers coming recently through Fresno Yosemite International Airport isn’t available, officials there said activity through February was on par with prior average numbers for the month, and through their own observations there doesn’t appear to be a decline in travelers so far.

That may soon change, with the U.S. travel ban for Europe that takes effect tonight — which doesn’t restrict Americans traveling there from coming home.

In addition, many airlines are reducing U.S. flights due to lower bookings from coronavirus travel restrictions around the world and concerns about travel safety due to the virus. It’s not immediately clear how many scheduled flights to and from Fresno may be affected, if any, said Vikkie Calderon, an airport spokeswoman.

Most people tend to book flights 30-90 days in advance, so the effects of what has happened this week and in the next few days may not be visible in airport activity for at least a month, said Michael Musca, assistant director of aviation for the airport.

“At least that’s the fear of the airline industry. The economy runs on confidence, right?

“Then, it might just go the other way,” as airlines have announced an abundance of sale rates for flights to drum up business, and it’s possible passenger numbers could go up as a result, he added.

Passenger numbers for Amtrak train service in the Valley weren’t immediately available, but spokeswoman Olivia Irvin said future booking are down 50% and cancellations are up more than 300% compared to this time last year.

She added that Amtrak has temporarily suspended three trains that normally run between New York and Washington, D.C. due to low passenger numbers, but no others on the West Coast or other parts of the country have been suspended, and “At this point, there is nothing planned.”

Calls to Greyhound Lines, Inc. to inquire about whether its bus services have been affected by coronavirus concerns weren’t returned.

As for the Valley’s national parks, they don’t appear to be greatly affected by coronavirus scares so far.

Except for some international bus tours cancelling, “We aren’t seeing the impacts now, but we are really positive,” said Brooke Smith, a spokeswoman for Visit Yosemite Madera County, which promotes travel to the national park.

“Spring break visitation seems to be pretty normal,” added Sintia Kawasaki-Yee, a spokeswoman for Sequoia National Park.

Smith said it helps that about 80% of Yosemite visitors, on average, are from local regions, so international travel bans and worries aren’t expected to have major effects on park attendance.

There may be a slight silver lining for the local national parks and forests, in that local people and people from other parts of the country who have to cancel their international travel plans my opt to visit the forests parks, not only because they’re close by but because they offer lots of open space for people to distance themselves from each other and reduce their chances of contracting the virus.

“It’s a great time right now to travel local.”

 


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