Spokane Journal of Business

Post-banner year convention activity livelier than expected

2012 looks even better; 12 national events are already on the books

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Post-banner year convention activity livelier than expected

Looking ahead to the rest of 2011 and beyond, Spokane is starting to see an uptick in the number of conventions and group meetings booked here, industry leaders say.

In a nutshell, 2011 doesn't appear as bad as expected, and 2012 looks even better than this year. Meeting planners are booking closer to events as the economy improves, and while it's difficult to compete with 2010's banner year, meetings are filling up venues here, conventions and facility managers say.

"We're not going to be as good as '10, but it's also not going to be as bad as projected because meetings are starting to come back and book," says Keith Backsen, Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau vice president and director of sales and services.

For all of 2011, the CVB expects 55 conventions with a little more than 50,000 attendees, which are figures that include larger meetings and don't factor in festivals, fairs, or sporting events. Those 55 events are expected to generate almost 41,000 hotel-room stays and have an economic impact of up to $66 million, the CVB says.

So far for 2012, the CVB has confirmed 24 conventions, with some 39,000 attendees for an estimated 44,000 hotel-room stays and an economic impact of also nearly $66 million. What that means, the CVB says, is that many of the 2012 conventions are larger with attendees expected to stay longer and tour Spokane. For example, the four-day National Square Dance Convention is expected to bring 7,000 attendees, and a National Trust for Historic Preservation meeting is planned for 2,500.

For comparison, 2010 had 71 conventions and meetings—excluding sports events—with 71,000 attendees, some 52,000 room nights, and an estimated economic impact of $76 million. That 2010 convention lineup had 15 national conventions, which was "kind of an anomaly," Backsen says.

Prior to the recession, most groups planned three to five years ahead, so the downturn's impact around 2008 had a snowball effect on 2011, a year that will show about seven national meetings in Spokane.

However, next year is already much stronger, with at least 12 national conventions scheduled here in addition to many local, state, and regional meetings, the CVB says.

"We've been tracking ahead of pace for 2012," Backsen says.

Some examples of large conventions next year include meetings for the National Auctioneers Association, the Society of American Foresters, the Agri-Business Council, and the Society for Range Management.

Overall, those in the tourism industry here say they are seeing two trends now affecting bookings this year and next: Meeting planners are scheduling within a much shorter window of time than in the past, as the economy looks better, and smaller meetings that are arranged directly with hotels for their meeting space seem to be making a comeback.

"From hotel partners, I'm hearing that they are booking a lot of smaller meetings held at those hotels, and it's helping them fill in these soft months we're dealing with," says Backsen.

Mike McLeod, DoubleTree Hotel Spokane City Center general manager, says the 375-room hotel has seen an uptick in group bookings for 2011. A group booking is considered 10 rooms or more per night, and those groups may hold a meeting in the hotel's meeting rooms.

"Small meetings two years ago weren't even there because of the recession," McLeod says. "The fact that we're seeing them now is a positive sign."

His 2012 outlook also is better yet. "I'm also up substantially in 2012, just with the increase in the large conventions and the even-odd rotation (of state and regional groups)." Convention planners with state organizations often book with an odd- or even-year rotation so that meetings can alternate between the west and east side of Washington. For regional groups, the rotation may take two or three years to swing back to Spokane.

For larger convention bookings, Backsen says tourism planners are seeing a "new normal," meaning national associations that previously booked three to five years ahead have a buyer's market and are booking 18 months to two years out. One reason is that associations rely on their members to attend, but many weren't traveling when the recession hit, Backsen adds. Now, planners are moving forward with a better economy, and they have a lot of choices among convention sites, Backsen says.

"When the economy went south, convention planners changed their strategy," to a shorter term outlook, Backsen says. "Planners have a lot of choices because they can still find space pretty much anywhere. That will change; the pendulum will swing."

Social media also is impacting a slightly better 2011 picture for Spokane, adds Backsen. A convention for Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church is expected to bring about 3,500 attendees here for a week in July.

Their planners have already sent small groups here who returned from Spokane to share on Facebook and Twitter about the area and why people should attend the conference, he says.

"They did an incredible amount of social media," Backsen says. "Their attendance is above their projections and for hotels, we're still scrambling to find rooms."

When considering events booked at the Spokane Convention Center, the overall number of meetings is down this year from 2010, but activity picked up last month, as well as for April and May, says Johnna Boxley, general manager for the convention center and the INB Performing Arts Center.

"We're seeing attendance pick up for individual conferences," Boxley says.

One of those events next week, an American Public Works Association event expected to have 1,300 attendees, will cover the topic of snow removal, adds Boxley. "People will come to learn how to remove snow more efficiently. I heard attendance is up on that one. A lot of people are coming from the East Coast."

She gives another example as the Cryogenic Engineering Conference and International Cryogenic Materials Conference in June, with an estimated 600 people. "It's nice to have international people coming because they tend to stay before and after events."

Looking forward into 2012, she agrees the industry pace is picking up.

"The upturn in the economy has changed our industry a lot. We're just looking for the economy to improve more, but it has improved enough that we're seeing more people are traveling and more people booking events and, also, more people coming to those events."

Treva Lind
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