- The Washington Times - Monday, May 27, 2002

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. Is a flood museum enough to attract conventioneers? How about a fishing tournament? A minor league baseball team?
The business of attracting conventions can be daunting, particularly in a world where events are planned up to 10 years in advance.
But with the prospect of earning hundreds of thousands of dollars within days for their communities, small cities across the nation are trying to grab at least a piece of the convention market away from major metropolitan centers.
By way of example, take Johns-town, where the biggest draw is a flood that occurred 113 years ago. City officials have been visiting larger convention centers around the country, trying to figure out exactly what it will take to make a success of a 35,000-square-foot conference center set to open next year.
"We know Johnstown has a lot to offer," says Ron Repak, executive director of the city's Redevelopment Authority. "We're friendly, safe and affordable."
And hungry for business, like lots of other small cities and smaller venues.
"All communities are competing for conventions. We want people with pockets full of money to fly in, and tip our waiters, tip our taxi drivers, eat in our restaurants, stay in our hotels and then get on a plane and fly home," says Gregory W. Wright, manager of the Coconut Grove Expo Center, whose small space in Miami has to compete with much bigger convention centers in Florida.
There's no question that places like Orlando, Fla., Las Vegas and Toronto are the capitals of conferences and conventions, but, in some cases, bigger is not necessarily better.
Convention experts say some groups don't want to travel too far. And then there's the fear among smaller organizations that they might feel lost in big cities' mega-sized centers.
That's where the small cities like Johnstown, or Fergus Falls, Minn., feel they can create a niche, attracting more modest-sized gatherings like the Midwest Spring Craft Show or the Tri-State Key Club in Minnesota and the Dakotas.
According to the International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus Foundation, delegates who attended trade shows, fraternal meetings and other conventions during 2001 spent an average of $268 a day on hotel rooms, restaurants and gift shops.
A thousand persons attending a three-day conference could pump $804,000 into a community, says Barbara Gottshalk, a spokeswoman for the industry group.
The problem is, there are about 500 convention centers in the United States and, on top of that, almost every city in America with a population of more than 50,000 has hotel space it uses for conventions and conferences.
The competition, however, hasn't scared off new rivals for business not when the money coming into shops and restaurants can help prop up a struggling town.
Judy Stringer, the executive director of the Convention and Visitor's Bureau in Fergus Falls, says she persuaded city leaders to build a conference center by telling them about the benefits of hosting conventions and meetings.
If the 13,500-person town about 155 miles northwest of Minneapolis can lure businesses from surrounding states to hold their gatherings there, conventioneers might come back to vacation, she says. Or, they might decide to retire in Fergus Falls.
"But all of these benefits can't happen unless the people come here in the first place," Miss Stringer says.
In Johnstown, which will have to compete with a new, 330,000-square-foot convention center opening 60 miles away in Pittsburgh, the idea is that the city's central location, its history and its minor league baseball and hockey teams can help bring it statewide and regional attention.
"It's going to bring a lot of people into downtown," says Lisa Dailey, executive director of the Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
In Florence, Ala., the hope is that the convention center will be an economic godsend. So Sandra Killen, sales manager for the Florence Conference Center, says tourism promoters are making extra efforts to provide conventioneers with big-city luxuries and also special events that make it worthwhile to come to northwest Alabama.
For example, promoters have started a fishing tournament at Florence's harbor. Miss Killen estimates that each angler spends as much as $200 a day at the six-day event.
"That's a million-dollar event," Miss Killen says. "That's not a lot of work for a whole lot of money."


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