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They'd Rather Be in Des Moines

Big conventions are fleeing L.A. The city's remedy could be to think small.

September 28, 2002|BONNIE HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forget Las Vegas. These days, Los Angeles would settle for being the Des Moines of convention cities.

L.A. may be America's second city, but it's No. 22 in North America and trailing the Iowa capital (No. 21 on the latest list) when it comes to the number of small and large trade shows it attracts. Reno books more multi-day shows than does Los Angeles. So does Phoenix.

The Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau has booked only 16 major conventions for 2003, compared with 28 this year and 35 in 2001. The recession and Sept. 11 have hurt convention business across the country, but L.A. seems to be losing ground faster than others--and for a number of reasons.

"The glamour of Hollywood and all that doesn't do anything for us," said Deb Hammond, who organizes the annual convention for World Wide Distributors, a national group of 1,500 retail vendors that has chosen Reno over Los Angeles. "L.A. is too expensive, too big to be comfortable and difficult to get around. Our show keeps us in a city for four or five nights, and we just want something more simple."

Los Angeles still hosts a big car show each year, but it attracts mostly locals. The downtown Convention Center also is home to one of the biggest trade shows in the country, the annual four-day Electronic Entertainment Expo, which attracts about 75,000 attendees for several nights each May. Yet holding on to that show has come at a steep price. The visitors bureau has charged the group a mere $1 a year in rent since 1999, an agreement that is good until 2005. Regular rental rates for a group that size are $500,000 or more, but Convention Center officials say discounting is necessary to keep larger shows from moving to other cities.

The slippage in L.A.'s convention business comes as the city is trying to make its downtown more vibrant. Indeed, the core of L.A. arguably is more appealing than it has been in years. Staples Center, dozens of top-flight restaurants and the new Standard hotel--a magnet for L.A.'s glitterati--have all helped the City of Angels become a more sophisticated urban center.

Still, in the last three years, 42 major conventions have abandoned L.A. for other locales. City officials and local hoteliers have blamed the cancellations on mismanagement by the visitors bureau, a quasi-public entity that has a city contract to attract large conventions. Earlier this year, the bureau was chastised by the Los Angeles City Council for wasteful spending and awarding bonuses to its sales staff for booking conventions that later were canceled. The bureau agreed to implement reforms and expand its board to include a critic of its past practices.

It clearly has a long way to go. The Convention Center has never landed the 38 big-ticket, multiple-day, revenue-generating trade shows it says it needs each year to break even. Next year, the meager list of conventions is expected to mean a $35-million drop in visitor spending.

Grasping for a remedy, the downtown business community is urging L.A. officials to start thinking more like Reno and Des Moines--which focus on regional events that appeal to a range of visitors, from rodeo aficionados to computer-game geeks--and look beyond big-name national groups.

"We can't be so picky," said Bill Worcester, general manager of the Los Angeles Marriott Downtown.

"It would never have occurred to us three years ago to be worried about losing business to Reno," Worcester added. "But when you see the latest numbers, it makes you worry about losing business to everyone, everywhere."

Just last week, Worcester and the general managers of nine other downtown L.A. hotels sent a letter to visitors bureau officials calling for "fundamental changes" in the way the agency conducts its business. The hoteliers also said they want to be included in sales and marketing plans aimed at improving the "lack of current and future bookings for the downtown area." Convention officials have agreed to meet with hotel operators next week.

Rob Johnson, spokesman for the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau, said none of his city's top conventions seem as if they would be "an L.A. fit." Des Moines' biggest trade show, the World Pork Expo, is an international event that draws as many as 75,000 people.

"We have groups that are pretty comfortable right here in the Midwest," Johnson said, noting that Des Moines has 2,000 hotel rooms within walking distance of its convention center and is within a few hours' drive from several large cities, including Minneapolis. "I mean, could they go to L.A.? I guess so. Would they go to L.A.? Nah. Probably not."

Cities fight fiercely for convention business, which generates sales and hotel-room taxes. In all, there are only about 500 premier trade shows and meetings nationwide up for grabs each year. And any city's gain is another's loss. It's a "zero-sum game," said Michael Collins, executive vice president of the visitors bureau.

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