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Convention Attendance Weak


Despite a marketing push to the contrary, the Greater Richmond Convention Center is on course to miss its attendance forecasts by more than half, according to a recent convention center report.

The numbers were part of a marketing report included in a request for proposals, issued in September. (The report, however, included inaccurate figures. On Nov. 1, the convention center supplied Style Weekly with the correct counts.)

Because conventions and trade shows are the only events that regularly draw out-of-towners, attendance is widely considered the best way to measure a convention hall's economic impact, particularly on hotels. The promise of the expanded convention center, which is being paid for with lodging taxes, is that it will benefit the hotel industry more than any other business sector.

According to a report issued in 1995 by KPMG Peat Marwick, and a follow-up report in 1999 by real-estate consulting firm C. H. Johnson Consulting Inc., the expanded, $170 million convention center should generate 208,000 in convention and trade-show attendees two to three years after opening.

Although the center opened officially in February 2003, it began aggressively booking events in 2002. And the numbers trickling in so far fall considerably short:

l Between July 1, 2002 and June 30, 2003, officials at the convention center reported 32,469 attendees at 16 conventions and 10 trade shows.

l In fiscal 2004, which ended July 1, there were 64,062 conventioneers and trade show attendees, according to the marketing report. (John F. "Jack" Berry Jr., president and chief executive of the Richmond Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau, says that number doesn't include the 18,000 people who attended the April Quixtar convention hosted jointly with the Richmond Coliseum.)

l For fiscal 2005, the center expects 110,920 visitors to attend the 20 booked conventions and 13 trade shows.

By comparison, the much-smaller Richmond Centre, which predated the 700,000-square-foot facility on Broad Street, drew 138,100 convention and trade show attendees in fiscal 1994, according to the KPMG report.

The hotel business the convention center is generating appears to be falling short. The center generated 44,762 room nights for the metro region in fiscal 2004, says Berry, although he suspects the actual number is much higher because meeting planners who supply the convention center with room nights don't account for people who book their own rooms. "It's probably twice that," Berry says.

The KPMG report had forecast that the center would book 416,000 room nights annually, two or three years after the center opened.

Michael A. Meyers, general manager of the convention center, says the Richmond is doing better than most. The industry, still reeling from the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a recession, is dealing with an oversupply of convention halls chasing too little demand.

"For us to be exceeding our numbers pre-9/11 is amazing," he says, referring to the number of actual conventions and trade shows. The center booked 27 conventions in 2004, when the 1995 report forecast only 25 and opened a year later. "We're not perfect," he adds. "In some cases attendance is down."

The convention has found creative ways to make up for lack of big business. Including many local meetings and banquets and even sporting events, the convention center booked 284 events that drew 257,645 people in fiscal 2004. Yet the majority came from within a 100-mile radius, and didn't stay in hotels.

Heywood T. Sanders, a convention economics professor who chairs the public administration department at the University of Texas at San Antonio, says Richmond is suffering along with the rest of the country. But he says the forecasting was overly ambitious. And he doesn't expect the convention business to improve anytime soon.

"It's pretty obvious in the Richmond case that it's not working," he says.

Berry, however, says that isn't true. The visitors bureau has a bead on so much business during the next three years that he's already planning another expansion. He expects to make the case for another $150 million expansion starting in 2008.

"That's why the future looks so bright," Berry says.

The missed projections add a new wrinkle to the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation's campaign for a 1 percentage point increase in the lodging tax, which would help pay for a new $168 million arts center downtown.

In arguing for the tax increase, the arts group has said the convention center — also funded by hotel taxes — is already succeeding. "My understanding is we are doing great and well ahead of budget and forecast," says L. Bradford Armstrong, president and chief executive of the foundation. — Scott Bass

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