Update: Michael Meyers, general manager of the convention center, says the financial report issued by the convention center's authority incorrectly listed overall attendance in 2010. The convention center's overall attendance was 296,718, a 13 percent decline, for fiscal 2010, Meyers says.
First the bad news: Richmond's $170 million convention center is drawing 39 percent fewer conventioneers than the old facility, which didn't cost $170 million. Across the region, hotel receipts were down 6.8 percent in fiscal 2010.
The good news? The convention center's operators cut costs and reduced expenses for the year, resulting in a net loss of only $1.5 million, according to its most recent financial report. The facility always runs at a deficit, mind you: In 2009 the net loss was $1.3 million, but loses in previous years hovered in excess of $2 million.
Who to blame? There are fewer conventions post-recession and the travel industry is in the tank. The result is a national convention center crisis of sorts, says Heywood T. Sanders, professor of public administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio, who specializes in convention-center economics.
“The national trends are really pretty ugly,” he says. “We've seen very dramatic declines in most major centers from 2008 to 2009.” That's especially true at the really big convention halls, such as in Atlanta, the country's fourth biggest. “In fiscal 2007 they did over 800,000 conventioneers,” Sanders says. In 2010 Atlanta's attendance was 473,448.
He says the result is desperation, which breeds drastic action, usually by way of convention officials pushing for more public resources (read: taxpayer money) to give them an edge — such as government-subsidized hotels. Michael Meyers, general manager of the city's convention center, says there are no plans for a similar push here.
For years Richmond's convention boosters said the 700,000-square foot-exhibition hall suffered for lack of hotel rooms surrounding it. So the city lured a developer from Chicago to convert the old Miller & Rhoads department store into a hotel, tossing in a few million to sweeten the deal.
But it didn't help much — especially in 2010. Unlike previous years, convention officials have held fast to overall growth at the facility. Including meetings, banquets, sporting events, and so on, attendance numbers spike. In 2009 overall attendance was 341,422.
But most of those events are local or regional, which don't typically attract out-of-town visitors who bring new money to hotels or restaurants — the whole point of spending $170 million in tax dollars to expand the facility a decade ago.
Oh, and overall attendance at the convention center declined 19 percent in 2010, coming in at 276,592.
“The larger issue is what this situation says about the wisdom of that center as a public investment,” Sanders says, warning against “pouring more money down a hole that's proven not to be very productive.”