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It's the Convention of Conventions as Anaheim Courts New Business

January 07, 2003|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

Fresh from a World Series victory, Anaheim is now competing in a high-stakes contest that could make the Fall Classic look like a warmup game.

This week, the city is host to one of the most important and elaborately staged conventions it has seen in years, for a group of meeting planners most people have never heard of. And the economic stakes are dizzyingly high.

If Orange County puts on an impressive show for the 2,500 or so members of the Professional Convention Management Assn., Anaheim officials estimate they can bag an additional $4 billion in future business over the next decade.

But it's a tricky two-step for Anaheim. One-third of that group's attendees are meeting planners scrutinizing the city's $4.2-billion resort make-over, including the expanded Convention Center, Downtown Disney and California Adventure, all with the idea that they may one day bring conventions to Orange County. The rest -- convention center CEOs and hoteliers from cities big and small -- are trying to lure them away.

As Anaheim puts on the ritz, convention officials from Chicago, Orlando and Las Vegas are tossing invitation-only parties, staging harbor cruises and entertaining clients at the county's trendiest restaurants in hopes that Anaheim has limited success in nailing down future convention business.

"We have to be aggressive," said Charles Ahlers, president of the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau.

"You've heard the phrase 'This is not your father's Oldsmobile'? Well, the same thing could be said here. Anaheim is not the place you think it was.... We have sex appeal now."

To that end, Anaheim is showing off its $177-million Convention Center expansion, hoping to cement its new position in the top tier of such centers. The total of 1.4 million square feet gives it the largest exhibition space among convention centers on the West Coast.

For this week's convention, the lavish opening-night gala alone cost about $300,000, with free-flowing martinis and a Mondavi wine-tasting bar. Elaborate floral arrangements and pineapples fashioned into palm trees decorated buffet tables overflowing with Australian lobster tails, sesame-crusted and seared ahi, and dark chocolate fondue.

The event was orchestrated down to the long stroll through the dark and empty exhibit hall, a way of showcasing its vastness. Acrobatic performers from iL CiRCO balanced, danced and twirled on small, lighted stages. In the lobby, big-screen TVs looped World Series highlights.

"We went to the ultimate, nth degree," said Anaheim's convention services director, Carolyn Pesenti Green.

In preparation for the four-day conference, city officials toured the resort area to note any areas that needed sprucing up. They ordered every window at the Convention Center washed, every palm tree pruned. Even the lightbulbs were changed. Electronic traffic signs on Katella Avenue and Harbor Boulevard were programmed to state "The Anaheim Resort Welcomes PCMA," and street banners sporting the association's logo went up.

The city mailed letters to restaurants, hotels, cabdrivers and local businesses, urging them to be on their best behavior when PCMA members hit town.

Official greeters in red (the signature color of the Anaheim Angels) met conventioneers at LAX and John Wayne Airport. Disney closed down a section of California Adventure on Monday night to hold a bash. And on Wednesday, the close of the four-day event, the Beach Boys will perform at a "Surfin' Safari" concert in the Convention Center's grand ballroom.

"This is that important," Ahlers said, adding that convention business brings about $1.4 billion annually to the Orange County economy.

The convention comes during a cosmic alignment of sorts for Anaheim, still aglow with the national publicity from the Angels' World Series victory. The resort upgrades are finally complete and the Convention Center is in the middle of its latest campaign pitch, a series of ads asking the question, "Who am I?" The answer is typeset over slick, moody pictures of the palm tree-lined Convention Center: "I'm great at entertaining and even greater at 'meeting expectations.' I'm beyond what you think and exactly what you need. I'm all new and beyond 'convention.' "

Despite Anaheim's remake, convention officials can hear the hammering of new construction in cities competing for a piece of the annual $100-billion convention industry. There are more than 60 convention center expansions or new development projects underway, and in five years there will be 20 million new square feet of exhibit space -- equal to 24 Anaheim exhibition halls.

"The competitive nature of what we're about is becoming staggering," said William Peeper, president of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau in Florida, where a $750-million expansion will be completed next year.

Playing host to PCMA is such a major opportunity to show off a region that association President David Kushner said he's constantly being approached by people begging for the chance.

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