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L.A. on course to host record number of visitors

The NBA All-Star weekend and the Electronic Entertainment Expo were among the events that helped boost convention room bookings by 51% this year. The city also saw a 16% increase in overseas visitors, officials say.

November 23, 2011|By Hugo Martín, Los Angeles Times
  • A World War II tank is used to advertise a video game at the Electronic Entertainment Expo at the Convention Center.
A World War II tank is used to advertise a video game at the Electronic Entertainment… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

A surge in international visitors and huge crowds attending the NBA All-Star weekend and other downtown events have put Los Angeles on track to host a record number of visitors in 2011.

"We are forecasting to have more visitors come to Los Angeles than any other year we've ever had," said Mark Liberman, president of the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, known as LA Inc. "That is great news."

With a 51% jump in convention room bookings this year and a 16% increase in overseas visitors, the bureau estimates that the city will host more than last year's 25.8 million overnight visitors and surpass the 2007 record of 25.9 million. Officials said it was too soon to say exactly what the record will be this year.

Downtown Los Angeles hosted 20 conventions and conferences so far this year, up from 17 events last year. And most of those gatherings drew bigger crowds than previous years.

One of the largest events held at the Los Angeles Convention Center this year was the Electronic Entertainment Expo, an electronic games and gadgetry event that drew 65,000 attendees, compared with about 41,000 attendees when the event was held in Los Angeles in 2010.

Another major event this year was Microsoft's Worldwide Partnership Conference, a four-day gathering in July of the company's staffers and business partners. The conference attracted about 11,000 attendees who booked 53,567 room nights, according to the visitors bureau.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles benefited from being the West Coast's largest international gateway city. Nearly 2 million overseas passengers — particularly visitors from Australia, China, South Korea and the United Kingdom — flew into Los Angeles International Airport in the first eight months of the year, a 16% increase over the same period last year.

The biggest increase in overseas visitors has come from Australia and China, a trend that Liberman attributes to burgeoning economies in those countries. To accommodate Chinese visitors, LAX now offers six daily nonstop flights to China, compared with only three daily flights last year.

"That is a significant increase," Liberman said.

The visitors bureau estimates that tourist spending on hotels, restaurants, taxis, merchandise sales and other expenses has pumped $239 million into the local economy so far this year, compared with $159 million in 2010.

Downtown Los Angeles hotel and restaurant managers say large conventions have boosted business throughout the year. During the Microsoft conference, Bottle Rock, a wine bar and restaurant about two blocks from the convention center, brought in extra staff to serve a party of 150 attendees.

"When the big events come, we staff up," said Corwyn Anthony, general manager of the restaurant.

During the Microsoft conference and an October gathering of designers and developers for Adobe Systems, the Yard House restaurant at L.A. Live brought in extra help to serve groups of 20 to 100 people.

"It was crazy, but in a good way," said Jennifer Weerheim, vice president of marketing for Yard House Restaurants. "We are extra mindful when we know a convention is coming to town."

The Ritz-Carlton and J.W. Marriott hotel complex that opened last year across the street from the convention center has been booked solid on a regular basis in 2011, said hotel spokeswoman Brigid Finley.

"This has been a great year, and 2012 looks like it will be even better," she said. "We are definitely feeling the impact from the conventions."

The bigger conventions pushed the city's hotel occupancy rate to 73%, a nearly 6% increase over last year, according to the visitors bureau. Convention crowds have also helped boost occupancy rates in hotels near LAX, the Westside and the San Fernando Valley.

Los Angeles tourism officials attribute the bigger crowds to an improving economy and the development of L.A. Live, the $2.5-billion entertainment center adjacent to the convention center and Staples Center.

"We have so much to offer," Liberman said. "We have music venues, hotels, restaurants and great weather. L.A. has something for everyone."

For years, Liberman and other local tourism officials have been trying to convince convention organizers across the country that downtown Los Angeles has been transformed from blocks of office buildings and empty warehouses to a walkable entertainment and dining district.

Los Angeles officials tried to make that point last August when the city hosted a gathering of the American Society of Assn. Executives, a group that represents the managers of the largest trade associations, clubs and voluntary organizations in the U.S. and nearly 50 other countries.

Los Angeles officials hope the association managers who attended the meeting will bring more events to Los Angeles.

The largest gathering of the year was the four-day NBA All-Star Game weekend, which drew an estimated 110,000 attendees at Staples Center and the adjacent convention center. The event was last held in Los Angeles in 2004, when the event drew about 100,000 basketball fans.

But the biggest worry among Los Angeles tourism officials these days is an NBA contract dispute that has already led to the cancellation of 33 preseason and regular season home games at Staple Center. Merchants and other tourism officials say they fear that a prolonged dispute will continue to cut into the profits of restaurants and shops that serve fans attending Lakers and Clipper games at the arena.

"I don't know what is going to happen with the season," Liberman said. "But it could obvious impact business throughout downtown."

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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