Bill O’Loughlin visited the Portland Expo Center on Friday morning as the centre’s decorators, electricians and entertainment staff arrived to prepare for the opening of the Pacific Northwest Sportsmen’s Show and Portland Boat Show on Wednesday.
Then he had an emotional moment as they approached him, one by one, “saying thank you for letting us get back to work.”
“It was a good thing,” said O’Loughlin, president of O’Loughlin Trade Shows. “You don’t realize how big an impact this show is until you have it. There is a huge ripple effect.
The ripple stretches far beyond the Pacific Northwest for what is billed as the largest outdoor spectacle west of the Mississippi. Outdoor industries and camps across the country and around the world will be showcasing their services through Sunday to approximately 35,000 or more attendees at the show. That’s about half of the pre-COVID numbers.
Social distancing rules will be strictly enforced as the Expo Center reopens its first trade show since the start of the COVID pandemic. And, as other events pick up to normal percentages before the pandemic, it will be the region’s largest public gathering in nearly a year.
O’Loughlin, 59, is the third generation of O’Loughlin to manage the massive encampment. He exudes enthusiasm – a legacy of Irish optimism.
The Portland show managed to make the cut last February, but a smaller event O’Loughlin manages in central Oregon had to cancel.
“It didn’t go well,” he said.
Rather than rolling with the oomph and waiting to see how things might turn out, O’Loughlin and his team spent months planning how to get there amidst many ever-changing restrictions from state and local governments, from OSHA and even from themselves.
Tickets are limited, locked into four hour availability periods to limit entry. Ticket office and parking are all online only. There is no obligation to go out, but the presumed attendance time in the past has been less than four hours. The aisles are larger and the kiosks are spaced to allow a distance of six feet. Food court areas have been expanded, and aisles will have employees monitoring compliance – and plenty of hand sanitizing stations.
An OSHA inspector told O’Loughlin that the show’s rules exceed all requirements.
“It’s a whole new playbook,” said O’Loughlin. “We want to keep everyone safe. This is the Portland show, COVID version.
The acid test took place last weekend in Redmond, when the Central Oregon Sportsmen’s Show went off successfully with virtually no issues other than reminders for some attendees to wear masks. And exhibitors and attendees expressed the same gratitude as the Expo Center employees on Friday.
“No one knew what to expect,” O’Loughlin said. “What we found was that the general public was watching each other. They were patient.
“And if you listened to them talk, there was strong support from the community. They were so happy to get out of the house. People were like ants everywhere and 80 percent of them brought home something they bought.
“It energized us. Some of those exhibitors – mom and pop operations – went a year without a paycheck. “
The Central Oregon Show had spaces available until the opening date, but was then full when the outdoor community realized this was really going to happen.
The same is true for the upcoming Portland show and O’Loughlin realizes that many exhibitors just cannot financially manage the costs. Others remain wary of large gatherings, he said.
Nonetheless, “We’re thrilled to have been able to make the show,” O’Loughlin said. “And that our friends have the opportunity to do business.”
– Bill Monroe for The Oregonian / OregonLive