Last year’s symposium drew about 15,000 attendees. Organizers hope for a similar turnout at this year’s postponed event, but say expectations are fluid as restrictions and travel bans unfold.

The Space Symposium — which attracts thousands of space industry professionals to Colorado Springs each year, boosting the city’s economy — is back on the calendar for the fall.

Typically held in the spring, the 36th Space Symposium was scheduled to begin March 30, but was postponed March 13 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was not immediately rescheduled, but on April 2 — the day it was originally ending — the Space Foundation announced the symposium would go ahead Oct. 31-Nov. 2.

“The last thing anybody wanted to do was postpone or cancel it, but those are the circumstances that we had to deal with,” said Rich Cooper, vice president of strategic communications and outreach for the Space Foundation.

“Our commitment is to the community and the members that we serve to make sure we can do it, which is why we postponed the event so we could find another time and another window, so when we hopefully pass through this environment, we can get everybody together and do the things that we have traditionally done.”

The symposium, which officials said drew about 15,000 attendees last year, could see lower attendance this year, depending on what federal, state and local guidance is in place leading up to the event.

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Cooper said organizers hope for a similar turnout, but “understand this is an environment that continues to unfold.”

The Space Foundation website currently says that organizers “expect more than 9,000 people from around the world.”

“There are a lot of different factors, like the governor’s orders on mass gatherings that’s in place right now,” Cooper said.

“There are obviously travel bans and restrictions that are in place. And again, those are all things that as we get closer to symposium, we’re anticipating that a number of those things will have changed.”

Cooper compared the foundation’s approach to hosting this year’s symposium to an astronaut’s checklist.

“We’re plotting a future,” he said. “We see a launch window, and like any other launch day you go through all the steps to make sure whether you are a ‘go’ or ‘no-go’ flight decision. So that’s the window we’ve circled on the calendar and we’ll be going through all those steps. Just like a pre-flight checklist.”

Now that the symposium appears — at least tentatively — to be set for takeoff, it’s expected to have a significant impact on Colorado Springs’ economy and the aerospace industry in general. 

ECONOMIC IMPACT

The Space Symposium is “by far the largest convention held in Colorado Springs each year,” according to Mayor John Suthers. “And from a tourism standpoint, [it’s] the single largest economic shot in the arm. No question about it.”

VisitCOS estimated 4,275 people stayed a total of 3,115 room nights at The Broadmoor hotel during the 2019 symposium, for a revenue impact of more than $1.7 million, and 4,590 people stayed in other hotels for 5,152 room nights, with a revenue impact of $7.1 million.

Doug Price, president and CEO of VisitCOS, said those estimates come from a an economic impact calculator that likely didn’t account for recent rate changes at The Broadmoor, so the hotel’s revenue impact is likely significantly higher.

“It is greater than just what the algorithms of a calculator show,” Price said. “That number, at The Broadmoor at least, is low.”

Suthers said revenue from the Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax paid by symposium attendees is “probably $2 [million] or $3 million,” but that the symposium’s overall impact, when accounting for sales tax collected by restaurants, retail stores, etc., is likely closer to $5 million.

“So it’s huge,” Suthers said. “I see the rescheduling of it as a glimmer of good news in a time when we’ve got a paucity of good news.”

With attendance numbers still a guess, it remains to be seen how much the rescheduled symposium will impact city sales-tax revenue.

“A lot of people in various industries schedule going to the [symposium] in their calendar every year, and so the question is going to be: ‘How many people could have made it in April that won’t be able to make it in October-November?’” Suthers said. “We may not have quite as big a crowd. But I also know that it’s an important enough convention in the space arena that a lot of people are going to change their plans just to make sure they’re there. Because a lot of business is done — millions, if not billions of dollars — as a result of relationships formed at the Space Symposium. So people have real incentives to do what’s necessary to change their calendars and get there. So hopefully it’ll be a big event.”

With the city currently forecasting at least $20 million in non-employee cuts coming to its budget as a result of the pandemic, Suthers said if the symposium couldn’t go ahead this year, the loss of revenue would be “just a drop in the bucket compared to what we’re looking at.”

“I think it may not attract 14,000 people, but the fact of the matter is it’s probably going to attract a lot of people, and it will be a big help,” Suthers said. “And then hopefully they’ll come right back again in April of 2021 and things will be off and running.”

Shelli Brunswick, chief operating officer for the Space Foundation, said when the symposium comes to town “the whole community prospers.”

“From Uber and taxi drivers, to restaurateurs, to multiple hotels, there’s a benefit,” Brunswick said. “And a lot our symposium participants … sometimes come in early or stay late. We usually do it around the Easter holiday and spring break, so when they bring their families they’re able to go and do some extra things in the community. They’re going to Cave of the Winds or the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo or they maybe go skiing. So there’s a huge economic impact beyond just our four-day conference.”

Suthers also expressed concern with how the postponement has impacted The Broadmoor, which recently completed a 90,000-square-foot expansion that adds exhibit hall and meeting room space for the event.

“The Broadmoor invested an incredible amount of money to expand in order to enter into a long-term deal with the Space Foundation that runs the Space Symposium, and paid premium dollars to get it done in a time frame that would have allowed the symposium to take place in April,” Suthers said.

“So this has been a real hit to The Broadmoor and they’re a big part of our revenue. We estimate The Broadmoor is responsible for about one-third of lodging and [auto] rental tax revenue for the city. So the quicker they’re up and running, the better off we all are.”

INDUSTRY INNOVATION

Academic and industry leaders and entrepreneurs attend the symposium each year, coming from the civil, commercial, military, and research sectors for networking, deal-making, presentations, panels and space technology exhibits. So innovation in the aerospace industry could suffer if the symposium doesn’t go ahead.

“Symposium brings the global space community together,” Brunswick said. “It’s an opportunity to talk about where the industry is going, what the workforce looks like, what is the technology and what are the policies being developed. 

“We’ve heard government executives as well as industry executives say, ‘I come to symposium because in four days, I can meet with more people than I can meet in four months sitting in my office and scheduling meetings.’”

Individuals come to the symposium knowing it’s essential for them to network with other industry professionals, Brunswick said, as well as talk shop, attend sessions and “understand where the government is directing the space industry.”

“The sessions are impacting because they talk about activities that are going on in the industry related to workforce policy and where the government is going, but there’s also auxiliary events  going on. We have a space law event, Space Generation Advisory Council does an event … the National Space Council last year had their user advisory group meeting at symposium. Will they do it again in November? We will let you know.”

Brunswick said nearly 2,000 companies were represented at last year’s symposium, as were 48 states and 46 countries.

“And that’s why it’s so critical that we found an opportunity to reschedule Space Symposium this year, while keeping abreast of where COVID-19 will be,” Brunswick said.

If the symposium has to be canceled, Cooper said the aerospace industry would just have to adjust.

“The industry,  like every other community, has to learn to adapt to the environment in which it operates,” Cooper said.

“That is critically important, not just in space and aerospace. You’re seeing that with education, health care, transportation, supply chains — everybody is learning to adapt to that environment. We’re no different.”

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