Grand River Center events increase in 2021, but attendance still lags

Dubuque’s Grand River Center broke even financially in 2021, but the number of attendees at events still remains below pre-COVID-19 levels.

The convention center in the Port of Dubuque hosted 406 events in 2021, far above the 141 held in 2020, which was marked by the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the center’s latest annual report. The center hosted 775 events in 2019.

Mitzi Yordy, general manager of Grand River Center, said the return of events at Grand River Center has allowed it to begin financially recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The center reported a net operating loss of $250,000 in 2020. In 2021, the facility managed to break even, Yordy said.

“We aren’t making any money, but we aren’t losing any money either,” she said.

Grand River Center is operated by Platinum Hospitality Group on behalf of the City of Dubuque, which is responsible for maintenance and capital improvements at the facility and pays for half of electric and gas utility costs.

Yordy said much of the increase in scheduled events came from private social gatherings such as weddings. In 2021, the center hosted 90 local social events, more than double the 40 held there in 2020.

Social, military, education, religious and fraternal events saw an even bigger increase, from 51 in 2020 to 170 in 2021.

Despite the increases, attendance at these events continues to remain below pre-COVID-19 levels, Yordy said.

“Attendance is averaging about 50% of pre-COVID bookings,” she said on Friday. “Next week, I have a convention that used to draw 600 to 700 people. They are at 450.”

Yordy attributed the lower attendance figures to an ongoing wariness among some people to attend large indoor gatherings. She noted that some organizations still are prohibiting employees from attending conventions and events.

Keith Rahe, president and CEO of Travel Dubuque, said the attendees of the Grand River Center’s events bolster the local tourism economy, so it will remain important to regain previous attendance levels.

“The conventions are huge,” Rahe said. “They are going to the restaurants and staying at our hotels. All of that adds to a very dynamic segment for industry and travel.”

In order to continue bringing in revenue amid low attendance, Grand River Center staff are trying new initiatives to generate additional income, such as offering outside catering, Yordy said.

She added that 2022 looks more promising, with 356 events already booked and more likely to come.

“We’re forecasting that it will definitely pick back up,” Yordy said. “The phone calls are already coming in for 2023 and 2024.”