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CONVENTIONS

Meeting planners lured by night life

August 06, 2008|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

The old sales pitch to lure conventions to downtown Los Angeles had an air of desperation to it: Please, please come to sunny L.A.

Slim pickings for restaurants? Lackluster night life? No worries! Hollywood and Santa Monica are just a few miles away.

The begging appears to be over.

The promise of 1,001 new hotel rooms, the Nokia Theatre and about a dozen restaurants and entertainment venues opening by year's end at the new L.A. Live complex near Staples Center has helped the city's convention bureau book a record 53 future conventions during the fiscal year that ended June 30.

That's a 29% jump over 2007. Hotel room reservations are up 22%.

Downtown boosters -- busy mailing "Reborn. Remarkable. Downtown L.A." fliers -- are cheering the convention boom, projecting that the bonanza will funnel $360 million into the local economy.

Industry experts say there's no risk of Los Angeles dethroning Las Vegas as the convention capital. And even Anaheim has nearly three times as many hotel rooms close to its convention center.

Even so, convention officials point to the increased bookings as a sign that downtown Los Angeles may have finally beaten its rap as a bad area for conventions.

"We're finding ourselves picking up conventions that we have not been able to attract to Los Angeles," said Mark Liberman, president and chief executive of LA Inc., the city's convention and visitors bureau.

"They see changes that have taken place. . . . If I can get you here to see the changes, we have an excellent chance of booking it."

All it takes is a visit downtown, Liberman said, where meeting planners can see firsthand the cranes, construction and new restaurants within walking distance of the convention center.

More is slated to open soon at L.A. Live, a $2.5-billion, 4-million-square-foot project owned by AEG. November and December openings are to include the Grammy Museum, a Regal Cinemas, an 18-lane Lucky Strike bowling alley, Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Yard House bar and restaurant.

The JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton plan to add 1,001 hotel rooms by the end of 2010, bumping the total hotel rooms downtown to about 7,500.

Booking conventions is a sales job, and LA Inc. officials are getting an assist from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and executives at L.A. Live.

Lisa Herzlich, L.A. Live's senior vice president and managing director, said she would attend a meeting planners conference in Las Vegas this weekend and take 70 of the top meeting planners to see comic Jerry Seinfeld perform at Caesars Palace.

When Rotary International needed a little special attention to seal a deal that would bring 30,000 attendees, the mayor met with representatives directly, Liberman said.

And why not? Tourism is a "cornerstone of our local economy," Villaraigosa said.

"The tourism and travel industries are keeping us strong despite a slowdown in the national economy, and we are adding new attractions to make sure this upward trend continues," he said.

Convention officials booked 41 events in fiscal 2007, up from 20 the previous year.

This year, software company CA Inc. and an educators group booked two conventions apiece between 2010 and 2020.

Each event -- CA World and the Assn. for Supervision and Curricular Development convention -- will bring in more than 30,000 room nights.

Despite tough economic times, occupancy in business-driven hotels downtown such as the Westin Bonaventure and Wilshire Grand is hovering around 74%, up significantly from levels in the 50% range several years ago, said Bruce Baltin, a senior vice president of PKF Consulting.

Two downtown hotels, the Marriott and Hilton Checkers, said that was due primarily to meetings and conventions.

"It'll take a long time before Los Angeles gets to the point where they're like Chicago, and they'll never be Las Vegas, but the factors that they're talking about are really happening," said Michael Hart, editor of the industry publication Tradeshow Week.

Still, L.A. rarely cracks Tradeshow Week's list of top convention cities.

Last year, it booked only four of the top 200 conventions, compared with 44 in top-ranked Las Vegas and nine in Anaheim.

Many meeting planners used to shun Los Angeles, citing its lack of hotels and entertainment options in the near vicinity.

But the addition of L.A. Live and the excitement surrounding downtown's renaissance were enough to lure CA World from Las Vegas.

The event is expected to draw about 8,000 people over five days in April 2010.

"I had been to some programs in previous years in downtown L.A.," said Bob Millin, CA Inc.'s vice president of global event strategy.

"This was all before L.A. Live and regrowth. It wasn't really an area that we were interested in taking the event."

But after visiting -- "There's cranes in every corner" -- and considering the easy access for international attendees flying into LAX, Millin said the group was sold on the city.

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kimi.yoshino@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Top convention cities

Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest city, did not even make Tradeshow Week's list of biggest convention cities last year, ranked by the number of top-200 shows each city attracted. Los Angeles had just four major shows.

Las Vegas: 44

Orlando: 24

Chicago: 20

New York: 16

Atlanta: 12

Anaheim: 9

New Orleans: 6

San Francisco: 6

Louisville, Ky: 5

Dallas: 5

San Diego: 5

Washington, D.C: 5

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Source: Tradeshow Week

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