While international travel restrictions are keeping some people away, thousands of convention-goers and spring breakers are making plans to be in San Antonio in the coming weeks despite the spread of the coronavirus in the United States.

Representatives of the local tourism industry say they are closely monitoring the situation in San Antonio, responding to concerned callers, and taking preventive measures, but there have been no cancellations of major conventions and only some hotel reservations.

A small number of exhibitors and attendees have dropped out, mostly from Asian countries that are prohibiting travel, said a spokesman from Visit San Antonio, the city’s convention and visitors bureau.

Rusty Wallace, area managing director of Omni Hotels, said two small groups canceled their room reservations yesterday, citing concerns their members would not travel to San Antonio in the next 30 days.

“I think everybody’s concerned about what the future holds,” Wallace said. “The Centers for Disease Control hasn’t called for a halt to travel and it hasn’t told people to stop having events, so we’re hoping that it’s going to be business as usual.”

The interim president of the San Antonio Hotel & Lodging Association, Michelle Madson, distributed a statement Tuesday assuring visitors that San Antonio is a safe destination. “The tourism community is committed to taking all necessary precautions to protect the traveling public and ensure their safety,” she said.

But there has been a trickledown effect locally over coronavirus fears, with a large catering firm reporting canceled contracts and a major employer prohibiting some business travel.

Meanwhile, starting Wednesday, 12,000 attendees and presenters from around the world arrive for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference and book fair at the Henry B. González Convention Center.

The AWP board released a statement Tuesday saying that some literary partners and featured presenters had canceled. But after meeting with City and public health officials they had decided to proceed with the event.

A conference the size of AWP’s has a $4 million economic impact on the city, said the Visit San Antonio spokesman.

About 2,800 people are expected later this month for a meeting of the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics, and the International Carwash Association has 8,200 attendees and 400 exhibitors arriving for its April 6-8 annual meeting. There are no plans to cancel either event yet, he said.

However, organizers of the Car Wash Show, said to be the world’s largest gathering of car wash owners, managers, suppliers, and decision-makers, posted a “notice on coronavirus” to its website stating they “are prepared to assess and respond to the rapidly evolving situation.”

Other cities around the world are experiencing cancellations of major events, including Denver, which was set to host the American Physical Society starting Monday, and San Francisco, which was expecting a Facebook global marketing summit. An internal sales meeting for 3,000 Workday employees in Orlando on Monday was turned into a “virtual experience” event.

Amid worries about the virus’ spread, San Antonio-based tech company, 6Connex, told the Rivard Report it is seeing a surge in demand for its virtual trade show services from organizations trying to avoid in-person meetings.

For now, most sizable upcoming conventions, which are planned years in advance, will go on as scheduled in San Antonio as long as public health experts advise the risk of community spread remains low. Outside of evacuees who were quarantined at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland after being repatriated from coronavirus-stricken areas, to date, no coronavirus cases have been identified within the general San Antonio population.

“I’m telling callers that Visit SA is proactively monitoring developments regarding COVID-19, with the safety and comfort of our residents and visitors in mind,” said Richard Oliver, director of partner and community relations at Visit San Antonio. “We have been assured by officials that the risk to the general public in San Antonio is very low. At this point, we feel very comfortable that visitors are safe and protected.”

But Host Hotels & Resorts, which owns Hilton and Hyatt brand hotels worldwide, told analysts Monday that coronavirus has negatively impacted its total revenues by approximately $14 million, and net income by approximately $7 million.

Early arrivers gather at the Hyatt Regency. Photo by Scott Ball.
Visitors check in at Hyatt Regency in downtown San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The short-term lodging platform Airbnb also released a coronavirus statement saying the company is monitoring the situation but has already deployed its “extenuating circumstances policy,” to offer impacted hosts and guests the option of canceling eligible reservations without charge.

The head of one major hotel group in San Antonio said Monday no group cancellations have occurred, but it’s too soon to tell if its San Antonio hotels will see a dropoff in hotel stays as coronavirus spreads. The Hilton hotel managers are placing additional hand sanitizing stations in public areas and reminding workers to regularly wash their hands.

“As for our transient guest, typically the two middle weeks are [heavy] … on spring break, and we still are anticipating our demand to be heavy during this period,” said Robert Thrailkill, vice president of operations for Zachry Hospitality. “If we have no reported cases in our area, I think we should be in good shape.”

Across the country, authorities have reported more than 100 confirmed coronavirus cases nationwide, with at least nine deaths in Washington state as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention works to contain the virus and encourages “social distancing.”

But fears over the virus have already affected local catering business True Flavors, which has had contract cancellations for several large corporate client events planned for this weekend, said Denise Hernandez, vice president of development.

“We’ve encouraged them to stay with their plan, that we’re continuing businesses usual and that we look forward to a busy spring break,” she said. “We’ve just said, we’re strong, we’re vibrant, and we’re really still working with them to try to regain that business.”

USAA, one of the city’s largest employers, has activated its public health emergency plan and is prohibiting employees from making business trips to certain countries and asking those from outside the U.S. to work from home for 14 days. The global financial services firm is also reminding employees of ways to keep themselves and their families healthy.

“Should the situation escalate, we would enact additional precautionary measures such as restricting visitors to campus and having additional employees work from home,” said a USAA spokesman.

USAA is headquartered in San Antonio and employs 34,000 workers worldwide.
USAA’s headquarters in San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In Austin, the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference that draws an international crowd of tens of thousands will go on as planned. But while public health experts are saying the public health risk is low, groups from Twitter, Intel, and Facebook have already pulled out of participating in the March 13-22 assembly of the film, media, and music industry.

A Change.org petition calling for SXSW to be canceled had nearly 34,000 signatures as of early Tuesday afternoon. Austin’s public health department announced Tuesday the agency is testing its first patient for possible coronavirus.

Michael Gurevich, the San Antonio-based founder of writing-coach website ilys.com, said he will be participating in SXSW EDU’s exposition and will have a booth in the startup area of the Austin Community College expo hall from March 9-12.

Planning to leave for Austin on Wednesday in preparation for the event, Gurevich said he’s not worried about coronavirus. 

“I’ve lived through more end-of-the-world scares than I care to count,” he said. “I’m still alive. Coronavirus? This too shall pass.” 

Sharon Aguillen, president and CEO of the tourism trade group San Antonio Visitor Alliance, said the mayor’s declaration of a public health emergency Monday may have scared potential visitors. But the message is that everybody’s health and safety is what’s important. Alliance members are “laser-focused,” she said, on ensuring good health and safety practices.

Spring break is on many travelers’ minds, but also Fiesta. Though the virus may be limiting supplies of commemorative medals, San Antonio’s largest party is still on for April 16.

“We are watching the situation closely on a day-by-day basis, but as of now, everything for Fiesta 2020 is going forward as planned,” said Amy Shaw, executive director, Fiesta Commission.

Business and Tech Reporter Lindsey Carnett contributed to this report.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.