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Selling Long Beach: Pitch for Higher Profile Paying Off : City Goes Up Against Tourism Giants in Battle for Convention Dollars

September 01, 1985|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — It was a crisp evening along the shore of Lake Michigan as the Summer Mist shoved off.

Aboard the chartered 70-foot yacht were representatives of about 40 national organizations and a handful of dignitaries from Long Beach.

Conversation remained light as the guests munched on crab salad in pea pods and cucumber barquettes passed among them by a waitress bearing silver trays. Down below, a uniformed chef carved inside rounds of beef onto petite poppy-seed rolls. And gradually, warmed by Scotch and wine, the revelers eased forward toward the windy bow to enjoy a breathtaking view of Chicago at sunset.

"It's beautiful" said one, staring off into the distance with a chilled glass of Perrier in her hand.

Only occasionally did talk turn to the much smaller city 2,000 miles away that had made the excursion possible. But underlying everything was that city's presence. And beneath the veneer of luxury was a definite purpose. Come to Long Beach, the winds seemed to be saying. Come bring us your tired and hungry so that they may sleep in our hotels and eat in our restaurants.

"It's a subtle, long-range sell," explained Bill Miller, president of the tax-supported Long Beach Area Convention and Visitors Council, which, with the help of such other entities as Jet America Airlines and the Wrather Corp., had arranged this $3,000 evening afloat.

Their target: a few prime prospects among thousands of delegates attending the largest annual gathering of meeting and convention planners in America.

Their business: the selling of Long Beach. Specifically, the wooing of conventions and tourists to a city they say is ripe for a renaissance.

The story, of course, stretches further into the past than three years ago, when the visitors council began wining and dining potential customers. In the 1920s and '30s, council members say, Long Beach was a booming tourist mecca known as the "Coney Island of the West." Then came World War II and the Navy. Gradually, the city's image changed. And by the time the Navy began pulling out in the early 1960s, downtown Long Beach was in a major decline.

But city fathers kicked off a "rebirth" with the 1967 purchase of the Queen Mary. More than a decade later, the Spruce Goose emerged as a major attraction. And in 1978 came the opening of the Convention and Entertainment Center, which features 192,000 square feet of exhibition space.

Today, said Miller, about 2,200 first-class hotel rooms are available, or soon will be, within 400 yards of the Convention Center--more than twice the number of three years ago. And within two years, he said, the number of such rooms could reach 4,000.

Attracting tourists and conventioneers to those rooms, however, has been a challenge. For one thing, the city exists in the shadow of two major established convention and tourism sites--Los Angeles and Anaheim.

Suffers From Image Problem

For another, it has long suffered from an image problem. "Within California, Long Beach has a very negative image," said Miller. "State meeting planners knew for years that downtown was not a good place to be." Nationally, he said, the city was so little-known that when talking about Long Beach, "you may as well have been talking about Bisbee, Arizona."

For years, city officials attempted to combat the problem with a series of private and public agencies established to promote Long Beach. They all disappeared, according to Carolyn Sutter, director of the city's Tidelands Agency, which now oversees the effort, because they were run by "non-professionals" with little understanding of the convention and tourism business.

"They concentrated on advertising, but didn't know the big picture," Sutter said.

In 1982, the city created the Long Beach Area Convention and Visitors Council, an independent agency with 18 employees and an exclusive contract to book conventions and promote travel to Long Beach. About 70% of the council's annual budget of $1.39 million comes from the city's bed tax. The rest, said Miller, comes from dues paid by the 325 hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions that are members and from their contributions to specific joint ventures--such as the Summer Mist voyage--deemed mutually beneficial.

Council staff members say their work has already reaped dividends. From 1983--their first full year of operation--to 1984, they say, the number of annual overnight visitors in Long Beach increased by about 15%--from 976,000 to 1.12 million. And during the same period, the number of delegates attending conventions in Long Beach rose from 132,025 to 179,358--about 35.9%. (The International Assn. of Convention and Visitor Bureaus estimates that, nationwide, the typical conventioneer spends an average of $532 during his or her stay.)

Countywide, the 1984 increase in tourists and conventioneers--amounted to only about 3.2%, according to data compiled by the Greater Los Angeles Visitors and Convention Bureau.

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