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February 19, 2024

Pandemic Bonus: Traveling attractions fuel comeback for Hartford’s major event venues

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Ben Weiss is the general manager of the XL Center.

After the pandemic lull, Hartford’s major event venues have returned to, or eclipsed, pre-pandemic levels of attendance and revenue, partly due to a boost from traveling shows and attractions that helped fill a void during their downtime.

The operators of the XL Center, Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field and the Connecticut Convention Center pivoted during the pandemic, and in its immediate aftermath, partnering with companies that produce globetrotting attractions — events they might not normally consider.

Now, these shows will continue to boost attendance and revenue, even as regular events return, said Ben Weiss, general manager at Oak View Group, which manages events at the XL Center and Pratt & Whitney Stadium.

“The events that I deal with are back to pre-pandemic levels, or better, to be honest,” Weiss said. “I mean, some of the frequency of live events is back to 100%-plus.”

XL Center events generated $17.2 million in revenue during the 2023 fiscal year, the same amount as in fiscal year 2019. The venue’s revenue dropped below $12 million in fiscal year 2020, and in fiscal year 2021 it was under $1 million.

Meanwhile, the Connecticut Convention Center had revenue of $3.3 million in fiscal year 2023 — about $1 million higher than in 2018 and 2019. Attendance last fiscal year (406,822) also eclipsed 2018 and 2019 levels, although the overall number of events (108) was lower.

One of the touring attractions that helped propel Hartford area venues through the pandemic was “Jurassic Quest,” an interactive dinosaur-themed experience, which returns to the Connecticut Convention Center March 1 to March 3.

During the pandemic,“Jurassic Quest” — originally planned to be held inside Pratt & Whitney Stadium — was moved to the stadium’s parking lot as a drive-thru event.

It was a soaring success, attracting about 15,000 vehicles full of people anxious about leaving their homes, but grateful for family-friendly entertainment that gave them an opportunity to venture outside, while remaining socially distanced.

Also, “Jurassic Quest” a success from a financial standpoint because it generated revenue from an event that otherwise would have been canceled.

“You can call it like a bonus,” Weiss said.

The next year, as restrictions eased, “Jurassic Quest” moved several miles away to the Connecticut Convention Center, where it continues to draw crowds.

More content creators

The show includes scientifically accurate animatronic dinosaurs, created in collaboration with paleontologists, along with live shows and demonstrations, such as fossil digs.

Jeff Munn

“Jurassic Quest,” owned by Texas-based Family Quest Entertainment, has three touring units that hit 130 cities across the United States and Canada each year. The company is also working to develop an international unit, said Jeff Munn, an entertainment executive who was recently appointed CEO of Family Quest.

Each unit contains 15 semi-trailers, packed with dinosaurs and activities, and buses that carry 30 full-time employees who operate the events. In addition, the company hires 30 to 40 temporary workers locally for each event.

“We’ll do the show and then as soon as the show’s over on Sunday night, they load everything back up into the wee hours of the morning,” Munn said. “And then the trucks are off first thing Monday on to the next destination.”

“Jurassic Quest,” an interactive dinosaur-themed experience, returns to the Connecticut Convention Center March 1 to March 3.

Munn said there are more traveling attractions like “Jurassic Quest” entering the events space, in response to consumer demand. He said his company has acquired a LEGO-themed attraction, called “Brick Fest Live,” which he hopes to bring to Hartford.

“After decades of being in this industry, I’ve never experienced so many options in the market,” Munn said. “I’m finding that families are more discriminant than ever, they also demand more than ever, and so the value proposition we offer is critical.”

At the XL Center, Weiss said he’s also seeing more of these types of shows, which he believes are an offshoot of the pandemic.

“There are more content creators and producers out there than I can recall,” Weiss said. “I think people want to be out and doing events. I think it’s the hangover effect of COVID. People were stuck inside wanting to do things, and that kind of lifted off as we saw the great explosion of people outside partaking in activities.”

The success of the drive-thru “Jurassic Quest” event gave birth to Pratt & Whitney Stadium’s other drive-thru event, the holiday-themed “Magic of Lights” show, which debuted in 2021.

Weiss said Magic of Lights is also popular, and he expects it to continue as an annual tradition.

The company that produces “Magic of Lights” is New York-based Family Entertainment Live, which also produces a “Hot Wheels Monster Trucks Live” show, set to appear at the XL Center March 23 and March 24.

Without the pandemic, Weiss said he wouldn’t have been connected with the company.

CT Convention Center

The drive-thru lights show is complemented by “Glow Hartford,” an indoor holiday light festival at the Connecticut Convention Center.

Glow Hartford debuted in 2022 after being delayed due to the pandemic. It returned in 2023 and sold close to 50,000 tickets, making it one of the venue’s most popular events.

Mike Costelli

Overall, the Connecticut Convention Center has been slower to return to its pre-pandemic event frequency because many of its conventions are held cyclically, on yearly rotations, and are booked years in advance, said Michael Costelli, general manager of the facility.

In the meantime, the Connecticut Convention Center has filled voids with traveling shows like “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” and “Beyond King Tut: The Immersive Experience” — both produced by Paquin Entertainment Group, based in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

“The exhibit hall became available during times that traditionally it’s not available because of COVID, so it created this vacuum,” Costelli said.

He said the convention center proactively looked for these types of traveling events to fill space during open intervals.

“If it wasn’t for the pandemic, we probably would have never gotten to be partners with them,” Costelli said. “So, I think that relationship will surely lend itself towards doing more business here at the convention center.”

As regularly scheduled conventions and shows return, traveling events may become less common. Conventions tend to fill up the hotels, like the adjacent Hartford Marriott Downtown, and attract visitors to the city for days at a time — often from out-of-state or even international locales.

Events like “Beyond Van Gogh” might draw people from across Connecticut, but they tend not to stay overnight.

“They’re great shows, but they’re day-trippers,” Costelli said. “Our job is to fill hotel rooms as well as bringing day-trippers.”

Starting next summer, the Connecticut Convention Center won’t have as much downtime as it did this year, Costelli said. However, when there is downtime in the winter, popular events will return.

“Jurassic Quest is a totally different animal and they’ll come pretty much any time of the year,” Costelli said. “They’ll come whenever we have space available.”

The Connecticut Convention Center also has consumer shows interspersed between conventions and day-tripper events. Those include the Connecticut Flower and Garden Show, held Feb. 22 to Feb. 25, which attracts people from all over the Northeast.

“The economic impact can be very drastic between a day-tripper and an overnighter,” Costelli said. “We have to find that happy mix. You’re never going to have 100% conventions. It’s just impossible.”

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