Convention centers have been some of the venues hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with many sitting empty since March due to government restrictions on large events.

But with election season nearing its zenith, some convention centers are putting their spaces to use once again, serving as early voting sites, absentee ballot drop-off sites and processing centers—and providing previously furloughed hospitality professionals important work in the process.

Minneapolis Convention Center (MCC)—the largest convention center in the Upper Midwest—is one such venue, utilizing its key downtown location as a ballot drop-off spot and ballot assembly and processing center. In a state where absentee ballots are up over 300% from 2016 and 2018, a large space was needed to process the volume of requests while safely distancing workers.

The venue, which is a department of the City of Minneapolis, partnered with Minneapolis Elections & Voter Services (EVS) to help address the large volume of early voting. On the first day of early voting, September 18, the team helped distribute more than 114,000 vote-by-mail ballots to voters in Minneapolis.

It’s the first time in its 30-year history the venue is being utilized in such a way.

“People who work in hospitality, you do it because you like to serve people. This is our opportunity to continue to serve our community in a different way through the election,” said Jeff Johnson, executive director of MCC, of the effort.

The MCC joins other convention centers and large sports arenas around the country serving similarly as election hubs. Some other examples include:

  • Georgia International Convention Center as an early voting center
  • Long Beach Convention Center as an early voting center
  • Reno-Sparks Convention Center as an early voting center
  • Popular NFL, NBA, WNBA, NHL, MLB and MLS stadiums as early voting centers and ballot drop-off locations

Providing Work for Hospitality Professionals

Not only are these facilities serving their communities during the 2020 election, in some cases they are providing employment for hospitality professionals.

Voters in Minneapolis
Photo: Processing of mail ballots for the 2020 election began on October 21 at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Credit: Courtesy of Minneapolis Elections & Voter Services (EVS)

Johnson said that because the MCC is a department of the city, convention center workers have been tapped instead to help with election duties.

One example is Dan Smoliak, a senior supervisor in guest and security services at MCC, who is now in charge of all ballot drop-off locations and has hired many furloughed hospitality workers, including those who worked at the MCC.

“This is someone who typically works with our clients around logistics of safety and security, and is helping the city rethink that process of drop-off and drive-in mail ballots,” Johnson explained. “As much as this has helped our staff in keeping them employed, we have really helped bring that ingenuity and logistical knowledge of events [to the election effort]. We are bringing good ideas and approaches to how we move people and organize these things.”

Earlier this year, Johnson mentioned that staff members had also helped with the health department’s contact tracing efforts, cleaning services at city department buildings and more.

Creative Solutions for Convention Centers

Serving in the U.S. election isn’t the only new role convention centers have played this year. Earlier in 2020, during the pandemic’s worst months in New York City, Javits Center was converted to a field hospital for COVID-19 patients. It was one of a number of convention centers serving a similar role in major metropolitan areas hit hard by the virus.

Voting
Photo: Voters in Minneapolis can walk, bike or drive up to the Minneapolis Convention Center to return their mail ballots. Credit: Courtesy of Minneapolis Elections & Voter Services (EVS)

Johnson speculates that convention centers may continue to jump into atypical roles, leveraging their immense amount of large spaces in new ways, as we move into 2021.

“As you start to think about how do you bring medicine or vaccines to millions of people over time, there’s opportunities there for facilities such as ours to be engaged in those conversations,” he said.

“People in hospitality are innovative and like to think of ways to help,” Johnson concluded. “We are a resource for the city and for the citizens.”

November 3, 2020 is Election Day.

Make a safe voting plan by locating your polling place, a dropbox location, check your registration and more at Vote.org.