- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2007

D.C. tourism groups are taking new steps to bring more convention business to town as the number of large, tax-producing conventions falls to its lowest level since the new convention center opened in 2003.

The Washington Convention Center Authority hired its first director of sales last month, and the Washington, DC Convention and Tourism Corp. (WCTC) is researching new incentives it can offer to groups that wouldn’t ordinarily come to a city as expensive as Washington.

The WCTC, the nonprofit organization charged with attracting large conventions to the city, also is planning to ask Mayor Adrian M. Fenty for more money to market the city, a spokeswoman said. The organization’s budget is $12 million, but it has to compete for conventions with cities such as New York, which has a tourism marketing budget of $45 million, and Orlando, Fla., which spends $74 million.

Conventions “are an economic generator for the city,” said Victoria Isley, senior vice president of marketing and communications at the WCTC. “Can it be more of an economic generator? Yes.”

Each convention attendee brings about $1,049 into the city, from what the sponsor spends to hold the event to the attendee’s hotel, restaurant and taxi bills, according to the WCTC. About 90 percent of the taxes those expenses generate go into the District’s general fund, meaning that the city’s coffers feel it when tourism is up or down.

The number of citywide conventions is at its lowest point since 2003, the year the new $834 million Washington Convention Center opened. Citywide conventions, booked from 18 months to as many as 10 years in advance, are those that bring in at least 2,500 hotel room nights on their busiest day — and have the largest economic impact.

About 14 citywide conventions are scheduled to be held at the Washington Convention Center this year, one less than last year and eight less than 2005.

The 22 conventions of 2005 was a bit of an anomaly — three came to town at the last minute after Hurricane Katrina canceled their plans in New Orleans — and has come to be a tough comparison, according to the WCTC.

But even in 2004, 18 citywide conventions came to town. In 2003, when the convention center opened in March, 11 were held.

The hotel industry feels it the most when convention business is down.

“It’s the foundation of our business,” said Bob Jacobs, director of sales and marketing at the Grand Hyatt Washington, one of the city’s largest hotels.

About 70 percent of the hotel’s business is related to meetings and conventions. The rest is from leisure travelers.

Mr. Jacobs said 2007 looks like it will be a “good” year but only because hotel rates are rising. He expects occupancy rates to remain about the same.

“With hotel [general managers], sales is a tough issue,” said Emily Durso, president of the Hotel Association of Washington DC. “It’s very good, but they always say we could do better. … They think 14 great shows is wonderful, 18 would be better.”

But marketing the District as a convention spot has a few hurdles.

When the convention center opened in 2003, the center’s official 1,500-room hotel was expected to open in 2007, but its opening date has since been postponed to 2010. It would be the largest hotel in the city and make hosting large conventions easier, because attendees would be housed in fewer hotels.

The District is also one of the most expensive cities in the country. The area’s average hotel rate rose 7.2 percent to $141.01 last year, according to Smith Travel Research, a Hendersonville, Tenn., company.

High rates keep many price-sensitive groups, such as teachers unions and fraternal organizations, from considering holding a convention in the District, according to Ms. Isley.

The WCTC is working on developing new incentives to make the District affordable to those groups, such as planning conventions during the slow and cheaper months of August, January or December, she said.

The Washington Convention Center also is working on bringing in more corporate meetings and parties, which are planned within 18 months of the event, such as Mr. Fenty’s recent inaugural ball and last week’s Washington Auto Show.

Last month, it hired its first director of sales, who will focus on drumming up this kind of business, which fills in the convention center’s calendar after big, weeklong conventions are booked. They don’t bring in as much money as citywide conventions but are important to filling in the center’s calendar.

“It was a general feeling that we have an opportunity to do more aggressive outbound sales work for the zero to 18-month time period,” convention center spokeswoman Lana Ostrander said of why it hired the director of sales. “I think we also realized that it’s very important that we partner with the WCTC effectively. We needed an experienced salesperson.”

The number of smaller events is up. Last year, the center had 111 bookings, and 100 are scheduled so far this year, according to the convention center, with plenty of time to book additional events.

Tourism as a whole, which includes leisure travel, is rising in the District. According to a September study released by the WCTC, the total number of visitors to the District rose nearly 3 percent to 15.4 million in 2005, the latest figures available.

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