The omicron variant of the coronavirus is again arriving just in time to cast a shadow over a long-awaited oil and gas industry conference.
As the delta variant did in August with the Offshore Technology Conference, the omicron variant is throwing a wrench in the international energy industry’s attempts to gather in Houston for the World Petroleum Congress, which starts Sunday at the George R. Brown Convention Center.
Now, the omicron variant of the coronavirus has companies and people — even the vaccinated — weighing decisions about what risks are worthwhile, including business travel. The World Petroleum Congress would not say whether would-be attendees were canceling because of the variant.
They said the event is proceeding as planned with health and safety protocols in place. Attendees will be required to either show vaccination cards, a negative test taken within three days prior, or proof the person had COVID-19 in the last 180 days.
Omicron, which the World Health Organization designated a “variant of concern,” could test the assumptions behind these protocols. Scientists are worried that omicron’s many mutations could evade immunity built by vaccinations and COVID infections.
Hotel bookings were already weak, said Nick Massad III, vice president of development for American Liberty Hospitality, which operates a dozen hotels in the Houston area, including two near the convention center. Only around 1 percent of the rooms blocked off for the event have translated into actual bookings, he said.
“It’s really pitiful,” he said.
Reluctance by national governments to open their countries to international travel hurt the event months ago as corporations were deciding whether to send people from far-flung corners of the globe to Houston, Massad said. Omicron is just the latest hurdle. President Joe Biden lifted travel restrictions for many vaccinated travelers earlier this month before imposing new restrictions on flights from seven countries in southern Africa over the weekend due to omicron’s spread.
Massad said his industry and the hotel taxes it generates are in trouble if business travel, a key driver of demand for hotel rooms in Houston, doesn’t resume soon. Business travel continues to lag even as leisure travel rebounds, suppressing weekday occupancy in Houston hotels and undermining a lucrative base of customers.
In June, the post-vaccination economy was humming along as people returned en masse to restaurants, airplanes and hotel rooms. Hotels in Houston expected the Offshore Technology Conference in August to usher in a robust convention season that brought the return of business travel, but the delta variant brought a new surge of infections and dashed those hopes.
Attendance was so low for the conference that organizers decided for the first time not to release attendance figures.
Still, Massad said, conventions such as OTC, though sparsely attended, have proven big events can go on without issue as long as protocols are in place.
“To me, we’re just delaying the inevitable at great cost,” he said. “A significant economic cost to not getting back to normal.”
This article first appeared on the Houston Chronicle – an Energy Voice content partner. For more from the Houston Chronicle click here.