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Convention Halls Expand as Cities Vie for Visitors

July 17, 1996|MARLA DICKERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An all-out space race has erupted at convention centers around the country, as municipalities grab for an ever greater share of the fast-growing, $83-billion exhibition and meeting industry.

Expansions are planned, underway or recently completed in San Diego, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, St. Louis, Orlando, New Orleans and Phoenix, to name a few.

And on Tuesday, Anaheim joined the fray, unveiling architectural plans for the first phase of a 20-year expansion that will double the size of the 985,000-square-foot facility.

Experts say the building boom is being fueled by continued growth in established national trade shows and a proliferation of new conventions in emerging industries such as multimedia.

Besides that, it's profitable.

According to estimates by the International Assn. of Convention and Visitors Bureaus, a four-day national convention with 5,000 attendees and 300 exhibitors--a modest size--contributes more than $5.6 million in direct spending to the host city.

While there is speculation that too much space is being added too fast, particularly in second-tier convention cities, industry observers say the biggest risk for major players such as Anaheim is that lucrative trade shows will outgrow a city's exhibit halls and move elsewhere.

"If you don't keep pace with the growth of your customers' shows, you force them to take their business to a larger facility that can accommodate more exhibits and visitors," said Peter Shure, editor of Convene, a publication of the Professional Convention Management Assn. "The convention business is like any other. It's always more difficult to recapture lost business than to keep existing customers happy."

It seems something of a paradox that conventions, those old-fashioned business meet-and-greets, are flourishing at a time when teleconferencing, the Internet and other technologies are linking people electronically.

An estimated 25,000 conventions, expos and trade shows were held in the United States last year. The industry has been expanding by 6% to 8% annually since the 1970s and is projected to continue at that pace well into the next century, according to Steve Hacker, president of the International Assn. for Exposition Management in Dallas.

Hacker says electronic communication is no substitute for the face-to-face interaction provided by trade shows and conventions. In fact, he says, the frantic pace of the modern business world has converted the trade show into a rare opportunity for time-pressed managers to network with clients and other industry movers and shakers.

"There is no way to replace the opportunity to stand belly to belly with your clients and competitors," Hacker said. "Trade shows save time and expense because they provide a unique opportunity for business people to do comparison shopping and make buying decisions under one roof."

Indeed, the nation's largest trade shows and conventions are only getting bigger as companies clamor to be a part of what is perceived as the hottest event of the year in some industries. More than 2,300 high-tech firms attended last fall's Comdex, the nation's largest computer trade show, which fills every available square foot of convention space in Las Vegas each November. Likewise, there is a waiting list to exhibit at Discover America International Pow Wow, North America's largest travel industry exposition, which was held in June at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

While established shows are getting larger, emerging industries are also spawning new exhibitions, such as the fast-growing Electronic Entertainment Expo, a showcase for multimedia and interactive technology that debuted in 1995.

Smith says the first phase of the Anaheim expansion, which will add 100,000 square feet of exhibition space, isn't targeted to mega trade shows. By constructing another 100,000 square feet of meeting space and a 40,000-square-foot ballroom, the city hopes to attract more meeting business from large professional associations and gain the ability to hold several smaller functions at once.

Industry experts say that's a smart strategy that will help the Anaheim Convention Center appeal to a bigger cross-section of the convention market. At present, the facility contains very few meeting rooms and primarily hosts trade shows and exhibitions, rather than conferences and meetings. Likewise, the ability to book multiple functions should provide a steadier flow of customers to surrounding hotels, but only if Anaheim succeeds in attracting out-of-town conventions rather than local events.

"The reason convention centers exist is to fill hotel rooms, generate economic activity and attract new dollars from the outside," Shure said. "Is there enough room-generating business to fill all this convention space being added around the country? That's the tough question."

Regional competition isn't getting any easier, either. San Diego and San Francisco, fierce rivals to Anaheim for West Coast business, likewise are planning major expansions.

Julie Burford, assistant general manager of San Francisco's Moscone Center, says Anaheim's strategy to pursue more professional meeting business, particularly in the growing medical, education and scientific fields, puts it in direct competition with her facility.

"They want my market, no question," Burford said. "And I'm going to fight like hell not to let them get it." Although Anaheim will be prospecting for new business, city officials are counting on the expansion to help them retain existing shows that are outgrowing the space.

Los Angeles received a blow in May when the Electronic Entertainment Expo announced it will relocate to Atlanta because it has outgrown the Los Angeles Convention Center. Smith says Anaheim is hoping to head off such defections with its expanded center.

* ANAHEIM ADD-ON

The city announces plans to double the size of its convention center. A3

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