Despite efforts to move forward with the 2021 Southeastern Wildlife Exposition and a financial loss for all involved, Executive Director John Powell said it would be irresponsible to move forward with the February event given the health risks.
As a result, the 2021 event, which has an economic impact of around $35 million, is officially canceled.
With COVID-19 cases still surging in the state, the SEWE staff and board of directors met earlier this week to make the final call. The conclusion has weighed heavily on Powell, knowing exhibitors, artists and vendors rely on the event to bring in significant first-quarter revenue, but the ultimate decision came down to health concerns for patrons and the integrity of the 40-year event, Powell said.
This is the first time it has ever been canceled.
“All those things were weighed as we tried to base our decision whether or not to go forward,” Powell said. “It’s one of the worst parts of not being able to move forward, that some of the bleeding continues for our extended SEWE family.”
The event was previously scheduled for Feb. 11-14, and as of Dec. 3, SEWE still hoped to move forward with the event, albeit with pandemic precautions in place. The typically 40,000-person attended event would limit capacity, nix complimentary transportation and reduce host sites from five to two, among other measures.
As the days rolled on, however, Powell called the resulting health risks a “numbers game.”
“It got to the point where moving forward would have been irresponsible,” he said. “This is our job. It’s extremely important to the city of Charleston. We need to get people here, but to gather en masse in February didn’t seem like the appropriate thing to do.”
In spite of the financial hit, Powell credits SEWE’s board of directors’ years of work in getting the nonprofit to a place where even without an event it can sustain until 2022. There are still concerns about how to make up the lack of city accommodations tax funds that the organization typically relies on, but corporate partners are steadfast in their support and see the organization’s small staff as an important part of continued operations, Powell said.
“We were desperately hoping to try, at least in a small way, to bring Charleston back to life again,” Powell said. “But everyone understands.”
Last year, SEWE made it just under the wire before Charleston shut down in response to the pandemic.
While 2021 is out, with so much infrastructure, contracts and moving parts that take months to coordinate, Powell said a 2022 event is already in the works. He still hopes that SEWE can jump in full force and showcase some of the ideas that had to be tabled for 2021.
In the meantime, all patrons who purchased tickets this year will have the option for a refund or to make a tax-deductible donation to SEWE for the value of their ticket.