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Los Angeles and Anaheim slug it out over the convention floor

A Freeway World Series between the Dodgers and Angels is looking iffy. But a titanic struggle over trade shows and conventions is being waged.

October 21, 2009|Hugo Martin

That long-awaited Freeway Series between the Dodgers and Angels is on shaky ground, but there's at least one contest already underway between Los Angeles and Anaheim -- it's just not being fought on a baseball diamond.

With tourism in a steep slump, the convention bureaus for both cities are in a pitched battle to win lucrative trade shows and conventions, which bring millions of dollars in revenue through rental fees, hotel bed taxes and the tourist dollars spent by conventioneers.

Although Anaheim has long been the dominant player, recent improvements to Los Angeles' downtown area are making it more competitive -- escalating the rivalry even more.

"The competition is civil, but it's fierce," said Steven Hacker, president of the International Assn. of Exhibitions and Events, a trade group.

Although the two cities have always competed for business, Hacker and other industry experts say the rivalry has taken on added importance because of the economic downturn and shrinking corporate travel budgets.

"It's a tough market, and people are offering the world to get the big conventions," said Charles Ahlers, president of the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau.

Anaheim and Los Angeles recently duked it out in a battle to book NAMM, the trade group for music retailers and manufacturers, which holds one of the nation's largest and most coveted conventions. Anaheim won, getting a hard-fought contract extension after NAMM openly flirted with relocating to Los Angeles.

The two cities also recently warred over the Wizard World comic book convention that Anaheim swiped from Los Angeles. Los Angeles, for its part, recently nabbed the Craft and Hobby Assn. convention for four gatherings over the next 10 years, ending an exclusive deal with Anaheim.

Historically, Anaheim has landed the bigger and more prestigious conventions, thanks in part to its abundance of nearby hotel rooms and proximity to Disneyland and other tourist attractions.

In recent years, however, downtown Los Angeles has beefed up its lineup -- starting with Staples Center, home of the Lakers and Clippers basketball teams and hockey's Kings. The new LA Live entertainment complex offers the 7,100-seat Nokia Theatre, the smaller Club Nokia, a 14-screen movie house and several trendy restaurants such as Katsuya and Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill.

Hotel rooms within easy walking distance are still in short supply, but that problem will be remedied in part with the opening in February of the 1,001-room Marriott Marquis and the JW Marriott-Ritz-Carlton hotel complex.

"Los Angeles now really has a product to offer which allows us to compete with other major convention destinations," said Mark Liberman, president and chief executive of LA Inc., the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Even so, Anaheim still outbats L.A. when it comes to large conventions. Last year, Anaheim was host to eight of the country's 200 largest conventions, compared with only three for Los Angeles.

Hotel rooms are a big reason. Conventioneers can choose from nearly 4,500 hotel rooms within a quarter-mile of the Anaheim Convention Center, compared with only 900 rooms that close to the Los Angeles Convention Center.

With hotel rooms within walking distance, convention planners can avoid paying for buses to shuttle attendees to and from hotels, at a cost of about $3 per attendee per day.

"It's absolutely a major selling point to have hotels within a quarter-mile," said Doug Ducate, president of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research.

And if an abundance of hotel rooms and exhibition space doesn't seal the deal, Anaheim can always mention the city's most popular attraction, Disneyland -- a huge draw for conventioneers with children in tow.

To outsiders, conventions and trade shows might seem like parties disguised as business gatherings. But conventions and trade shows represent a huge windfall of taxes, fees and spending to cities.

Adding up all the spending of a typical conventioneer -- including lodging, meals, cab fare and entertainment -- each person attending a convention generates as much as $1,500 in revenue to the host city, according to industry studies.

Last year, the annual NAMM meeting drew about 85,000 visitors and generated about $75 million in taxes, fees and other revenues for the Anaheim area.

So, it was no surprise that Los Angeles and Anaheim lobbied hard to book NAMM when its contract at Anaheim was scheduled to end next year. NAMM has held the event in Anaheim for the last 33 years, except for a stint from 1998 through 2000 when it moved to L.A. during convention center construction in Anaheim.

After considering offers by both cities, NAMM decided this year that it would stay in Anaheim until at least 2013.

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