The Business Press: Convention centers adjust to fewer events, attendees

By Chris H. Sieroty 
Contributing Writer
ONTARIO, Cailf. – While companies find trade shows to be a valuable tool in generating sales, many are expected to curtail spending on such events this year as economic woes force them to reduce their special-event budgets.
Both the Ontario and Palm Springs convention centers and visitors bureaus target state and regional associations and businesses, which makes them a little more resilient in a recession than facilities that target national shows.
The 2009 Inland Empire Auto Show, which had been scheduled for April 24-26 at the Ontario Convention Center, has been postponed and a new date has not yet been set. The auto show organizers felt it was in the best interest of taxpayers and in support of the auto manufacturers to move the date of the 2009 auto show, a spokesman said.
“We recognize the importance of saving money and helping the automakers get back on their feet by moving our dates and allowing them to recover from the current economic situation,” said Michael Caudill, spokesman for the Inland Empire Auto Show. “We want consumers to be excited about our show and with the state of the economy it just doesn’t make sense to hold the show in April.”
The Press-Enterprise, which owns and operates The Business Press, is the title sponsor of the Inland Empire Auto Show.
There have been discussions about moving the show to the fall, Caudill said. The show will continue to base its direction on the automakers’ response to the federal bailout, he said. The 2010 auto show has been scheduled for April 22-26.
Despite the auto show’s postponement, Ontario officials don’t expect the city to be adversely affected.
“There’s some economic impact from the auto show’s postponement, but not a lot,” City Manager Gregory C. Devereaux said. “Auto shows don’t sell cars directly. It really has more of an (economic) impact on local hotel rooms, restaurants and things like that.”
The auto show attracted 20,000 visitors a year to the area, said Bob Brown, president and chief executive officer of the Ontario Convention and Visitors Bureau and general manager of the convention center.
To replace business lost because of the auto show’s postponement, the convention center will host two events on April 25: a ValueHomeAuctions.com home foreclosure auction and the California Highway Patrol’s cadets exam, Brown said. He expected the home foreclosure auction to attract several thousand attendees, while 1,000 potential CHP cadets were scheduled to take the daylong exam.
The new events will “make a very large dent” in restoring business lost from the auto-show postponement, Brown said.
Companies that have held or are scheduled to hold events this year at the convention center include the National Association of College Admission Counseling, which attracted 5,000 visitors; the California State Thespian Festival and the Hall of Fame Regional Dance Competition, both of which are expected to attract 2,500 attendees.
A recent study by the Trade Show Exhibitors Association in Chicago, which serves almost 2,000 exhibit and event professionals and suppliers, estimated companies would reduce trade show budgets this year by 17 percent — a decrease from $459,100 to $381,000. The survey also found exhibitors attended an average of 30 trade shows in 2008 and expect to attend 25 in this year.
Spending for medical, health care and pharmaceutical industry events will increase 5 percent in 2009, while spending for technology shows will decrease 46 percent from $615,400 to $332,000, the report found.
“We are booking better than most convention centers, because of our location,” Brown said. The convention center is conveniently located near Ontario International Airport and several interstate freeways, making it easy to “drive in or fly in” for a trade show or other events, he said.
“The only decline we are seeing this year is in attendance. In the past, an organization would send two or three representatives; now they’ll send one, maybe two executives,” Brown said.
In Palm Springs, the convention center has experienced the cancellation of only two banquets associated with this year’s Ladies Professional Golf Association Kraft Nabisco Championship in Rancho Mirage. It has seen no trade shows or conventions canceled because of the recession.
“We have had some events that have met or even exceeded (attendance) expectations,” said Jim Dunn, executive director of the Palm Springs Convention Center and Bureau of Tourism. “Other events have seen attendance drop by 20 percent. It all depends on the industry.”
Kraft Nabisco canceled the two corporate events associated with the golf tournament in July, before the economy declined, Dunn said.
“Generally we host 95 to 140 events annually,” Dunn said. “We’ve had groups come in with fewer people this year. But, we are in the height of the season and won’t have official numbers until next month.”
The Ontario Convention Center’s 250,000 square feet of exhibit space and the Palm Springs Convention Center at 245,000 square feet are small compared with the Los Angeles Convention Center’s 720,000 square feet and the Anaheim Convention Center’s 815,000 square feet, which makes it the largest facility on the West Coast.
The economic downturn has made the convention business even more challenging, Dunn said.
“We do a different type of business than Ontario,” he said. “We have midweek events, but we are mostly focused on the leisure tourist looking to stay over a weekend. We also have been working with local hotels and the Bureau of Tourism to help fill rooms throughout the Coachella Valley.”
The tourism and convention industries across the nation are discounting hotel rooms and convention space to attract trade shows and their attendees, Dunn said. But he cautioned that when “everyone is discounting … discounting alone doesn’t set you apart. It is what you can offer the business and leisure traveler that sets you apart.” Historically Ontario has been a Sunday-through-Thursday business destination, but that is changing, Brown said.
“We’re gaining in popularity as a weekend destination,” he said. “Within the next 60 days, we’ll have a new booking agent online offering specials and coupons for travelers looking for a weekend getaway.”
The region has the infrastructure, from golf courses to arts and entertainment venues, to attract the leisure tourist, Brown said. “Leisure businesses tie into Ontario being the gateway destination,” he said. “We’ve always been the more affordable business destination of choice. Now we want to be the value destination leisure travelers choose.”
Ontario Convention Center generates $40 million a year in local economic activity, he said.

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