Mega Meetings Boost Tourism Industry

Meeting Planning

When it comes to citywides, corporate and consumer events get all the headlines—not to mention the buzz. Take Oracle OpenWorld in San Francisco, for example.

In September, an estimated 60,000 attendees (about a 20 percent increase over the 2012 total) converged on San Francisco for five days of new-product launches, general sessions, hands-on labs, exhibitions and entertainment that involved shutting down Howard Street between the Moscone Center’s North and South halls. Attendees also were invited to rock out during a buoyant night of music, feasting, networking and fun on Treasure Island. It was a successful event for Oracle—and also for San Francisco, because it resulted in a total of 107,066 hotel-room nights and $120 million in direct spending.                   

“Citywide meetings are extremely important to San Francisco’s tourism industry,” says Joe D’Alessandro, president and CEO of the San Francisco Travel Association. “These corporate and association events bring millions of dollars from visitors through spending at hotels, restaurants, shops, entertainment and more, not to mention the jobs they support and revenue they generate for the city in fees and taxes.”

Ditto for destinations around the country: Meetings and trade shows represent more than 40 percent of the total $273 billion that will be spent on all business travel in the United States this year (finally surpassing pre-recession levels), according to the Global Business Travel Association. That’s why the competition among destinations to land citywides has become keener than ever before. Here’s a closer look at this lucrative market.

Citywides Defined

We know that these multiday meetings commonly draw thousands of attendees, and in turn they require plenty of guest rooms and a large amount of facility space. Here is how citywides are defined in selected cities.

  • Chicago: A group of 10,000 guest rooms or more on the peak night
  • Los Angeles: Groups using the convention center with bookings at a minimum of three hotels and 1,500 hotel room nights on the peak night and/or a minimum of 3,000 total hotel-room nights
  • Las Vegas: Any event that includes participation of at least three locations
  • New York: Typically, a program with 3,000 or more rooms on peak night or a program that utilizes three or more hotels
  • Orlando: More than 1,000 room nights on peak night, or 60,000 sq. ft. of convention space
  • Philadelphia: 2,000 room nights or more on peak night

How Many Come to Citywides?

For destinations, the number of citywides varies considerably by year, ranging from around eight in some cities to dozens in larger cities that are prime locations. For instance, Las Vegas had a whopping 52 citywides with more than 1,000 attendees in 2013. The number of citywides is dependent on several factors, including  the city’s size, the carrying capacity of its convention center, fluctuations in the national economy and the annual rotational patterns of associations. Here are some attendee estimates for this month, provided by HotelPlanner.

  • Austin: Dell World (5,000)
  • Indianapolis: Specialty Equipment Market Association (8,000)
  • New Orleans: American Society of Hematology (8,000)
  • Philadelphia: American Economic Association (8,000)
  • San Francisco: American Geophysical Union (20,000)

The Economic Impact of Citywides

Perhaps the best way to put citywides in perspective is to look at hotel-room nights booked and dollars spent. The following is a snapshot of locations around the country.

  • Bismarck, N.D.: In 2012, the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in Bismarck posted the city’s highest number of attendees ever (4,000-plus) and rang up $1.9 million in direct spending in the area. It’s on the books again for 2014 (the convention alternates every year between North Dakota and Canada).
  • Chicago: In 2013, the Radiological Society of North America drew 60,000 attendees, which translated into 105,737 room nights and delegate expenditure of $136 million. Eight citywides are scheduled for 2014, with an anticipated economic impact of $831 million, according to Michael Tarr, CMP, vice president of association sales for Choose Chicago.
  • Las Vegas: The city’s largest annual event (153,000 attendees from 170 countries in 2013) is the International CES (Consumer Electronics Show), which this year had a $192.2 million nongaming economic impact on southern Nevada.
  • Los Angeles: E3 2013 (Electronic Entertainment Expo), a trade show for video games and related products held in June, brought 48,200 attendees and produced 28,000 room nights and $40 million in economic impact. It’s locked into L.A. through 2015.
  • New Orleans: Super Bowl XLVII was played at the Superdome before more than 70,000 fans and produced a $480 million net impact for the region. The event drew an estimated 100,000 visitors over several days. (On another note, Americans consumed an estimated 79 million pounds of avocados around the time of the championship game.)
  • Philadelphia: Utilizing the expanded Pennsylvania Convention Center, which recently doubled in size to 974,000 sq. ft., the American Diabetes Association meeting held in June 2012 drew 17,000 attendees for a total of 51,083 hotel-room nights and an economic impact of $59 million.
  • San Diego: Comic-Con International, the largest comics and pop culture event in the nation, is also the San Diego Convention Center’s largest annual event. It’s expected to generate an economic impact of $488.4 million between 2013 and 2015. Direct spending by attendees (126,000 in 2013) during the three convention years is expected to total $203.4 million and use 378,000 hotel-room nights.
  • Seattle: Approximately 12,000 delegates attended the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology convention in May. The event booked 29,355 hotel-room nights and contributed $29 million to the local economy.

Tracking the Impact

To track economic impact, many cities, such as Chicago and Las Vegas, have developed their own research methods and models that are specific to convention and leisure visitors’ spending. But there’s also a new tool in the arsenal that many other cities, such as Los Angeles and New York, are using to track the economic value of an event and calculate its return-on-investment.

Developed by Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI), the Event Impact Calculator draws on nine different data sources to provide an industry-wide standard in a manner that’s also flexible, localized and comprehensive

(see According to Michael D. Gehrisch, president and CEO of DMAI, “Return on investment metrics is crucial to understanding and communicating the value of events.” Armed with that information, he says, “DMOs and their communities can better articulate and understand the substantial impacts that events have on the economic development of their destinations.”

Look no further than DMAI’s own 2013 annual convention in Orlando for an example of the tool’s results. The event attracted a record 1,325 attendees and brought in more than $2 million in direct spending for the Orlando economy. Data from the report also shows that the convention supported more than 1,000 jobs in the local community and generated $172,000 in local receipts.

Size Matters (Usually)

It’s an immutable fact: Cities with the largest convention centers book the largest conventions and events. Planners have other requirements on their list, but size is the deal breaker. Here’s what the five largest convention centers in the United States offer.

  • Chicago: McCormick Place, 2.6 million sq. ft. spread across four buildings
  • Boston: Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, 2.1 million sq. ft.
  • Orlando: Orange County Convention Center, 2.1 million sq. ft.
  • Las Vegas: Las Vegas Convention Center, 2 million sq. ft.
  • Atlanta: Georgia World Congress Center, 1.4 million sq. ft.

Once the numbers game of convention space is over, planners then need to look at  the city’s infrastructure (e.g., hotel rooms and airlift) and its appeal to potential attendees. This could involve weather (particularly for winter events), amenities, dining and entertainment.

“Of course, the convention center space needs to work, and so does the layout—meaning enough meeting rooms and exhibit space—as well as the hotel package in the city, says Amy Ledoux, CMP, CAE, senior vice president of meetings and expositions for the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). “We also look at the accessibility into the city—airlift, etc. [But] we choose [sites] based on the city’s interest and its proposal…the experience we feel the city will deliver that may be unique for our attendees.”

Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans

News & Updates

Citywides have been enhanced in many parts of the United States as new and renovated convention centers and hotels emerge, and more are being planned for the near future. Also, several airports and entertainment districts have expanded, giving citywides an additional boost.

Super-sizing Convention Centers

According to Cvent, there are an estimated 85 million sq. ft. of meeting and exhibit space at convention centers throughout the United States—and the number is growing (all the better for cities to keep current clients from outgrowing them or to open new markets). Among those expansions currently planned or under way are:

  • Boston: Legislation was filed in early October to expand the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center from 516,000 to about 851,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, as well as add a second, larger ballroom. This project would be complemented by the planned construction of two hotels, Aloft and Element next door, and a proposed headquarters hotel across the street from the center that would be significantly larger in size.
  • Las Vegas: Earlier this year, the Las Vegas CVA approved a new concept for its convention center overhaul, the Las Vegas Global Business District. The district would include a World Trade Center building and a multimodal transportation center, among several other upgrades. The $2.5 billion project would be developed over the next eight to 10 years.
  • San Diego: The long-proposed expansion of the San Diego Convention Center, which was approved by the California Coastal Commission Oct. 10, will add approximately 225,000 sq. ft. of contiguous exhibit space along with 101,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and an 80,000-square-foot ballroom (plus a new 500-room hotel tower expansion).
  • San Francisco: A $500 million expansion of Moscone Center is anticipated to begin in November 2014, with completion set for spring 2018. It will add approximately 350,000–400,000 sq. ft. to the facility, including 80,000 or more sq. ft. of contiguous exhibit space.
  • San Antonio: Currently under way, the $325 million expansion of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center will add approximately 280,000 sq. ft. of new exhibit space, bringing the total to more than 500,000 sq. ft. of contiguous space. It will also add a new 55,000-square-foot ballroom, the largest in Texas. Completion is expected in 2016.

New-Build Convention Centers

Looking at the economic potential of citywide events or larger meetings in general, some cities have chosen to replace an existing convention center or create an entirely new build to complement a rapidly growing market.

  • Nashville: Opened in May, Music City Center is almostthe new kid on the block. It has 1.2 million sq. ft. of total space, including 350,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, and has already generated 18,751 room nights and a $26 million economic impact. (Music City Center replaces the old convention center.)
  • Cleveland: This is the new kid: The Cleveland Convention Center opened in June, with a 230,000-square-foot exhibit hall. The underground, LEED-certified complex is connected to the newly renamed Global Center for Health Innovation (formerly called Medical Mart), which opened Oct. 8.

New & Planned Headquarters Hotels

Nothing says “open for business” for citywide events like a headquarters hotel that is adjacent, directly connected or across the street from the convention center. It strengthens a city’s competitive edge and helps attract new business.

The New Haves

  • Orlando: This past summer, Hyatt Hotels Corp. purchased the 1,641-room Peabody Orlando hotel, which is part of the Orange County Convention Center complex, for $717 million. While the purchase doesn’t add any more rooms to the mix, as a Hyatt Regency the property has a great reputation in the group market and now offers a national sales force, according to Fred Shea, Visit Orlando senior vice president of convention sales and services.

The Will Haves

  • Washington, D.C.: The 1,175-room Washington Marriott Marquis is slated to open May 1. Located across the street from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, it will offer a direct underground concourse leading to the facility.
  • Chicago: Marriott International has been chosen to operate the $400 million, 1,200-room hotel next door to McCormick Place. Completion of the Marriott Marquis is slated for 2016.
  • Los Angeles: Part of a $1 billion mixed-use project, the 900-room Wilshire Grand Hotel is scheduled to open in 2017. The 73-story tower, which is within walking distance of the convention center, is now under construction.

The Potential Haves

  • Cleveland: Public opinion is being sought on the design of a proposed 650-room, $260 million hotel next to the new convention and health centers. The projected opening of the hotel is in 2016.
  • Miami Beach: A developer has been picked for the planned $1.2 billion expansion and renovation of the Miami Beach Convention Center. The plan would add an 800-room hotel above the convention center and ballroom.

Uplifting Airlift        

As airlines merge, many airports continue to expand, offering new terminals, additional gates, longer runways and better systems to whisk travelers on their way.

  • Las Vegas: In June 2012, McCarran International Airport opened its $2.4 billion international terminal (T3), which added seven international and seven domestic gates. “Our international lift has gone up 21 percent in this past year,” says Chris Meyer, CEM, CMP, vice president of global business sales for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. The new terminal also will help to spread the flow of the nearly 114,000 daily travelers passing through the large airport.
  • Los Angeles: Yes, it’s true: The long-awaited Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX is nearly complete; on Sept. 18 the first A380 jet arrived at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the terminal. When construction is finished (the target is early 2015), the terminal will have 18 gates, nine of which can handle the next-generation A380 jets—more than any other airport in the country.
  • Orlando: New improvements to the Orlando International Airport are expected to expand the flow of traffic, a boon to business and frequent leisure travelers. A $2.1 billion South Terminal has also been proposed, with construction to begin in 2018 and finish in 2022.
  • Salt Lake City: A new single terminal will eventually replace the existing three terminals in a $2 billion project to upgrade and expand Salt Lake City International Airport. It will take about a decade to complete, with construction scheduled to begin in spring 2014.

Can You Say Entertainment Districts?

After attendees walk out the convention center door at the end of the day, they want to know one thing: “What can I do now?” The answer: Head straight to the usual trifecta of restaurants, nightlife and sports. And considering the recent success of L.A. Live in Los Angeles, that’s something on which cities definitely are betting.

  • Chicago: Plans were announced in May for the $841 million McCormick Place Entertainment District, a redevelopment of the neighborhood surrounding the convention center, featuring a 10,000-seat event center designed by internationally renowned architecture firm Pelli Clarke Pelli, as well as dining and entertainment venues, two hotels and more.
  • Orlando: The convention entertainment district—which encompasses International Drive—is expanding, with additional opportunities for business dining, such as the 55,000-square-foot Mango’s Tropical Cafe, which can accommodate groups with private rooms and offer buyout opportunities, and many more entertainment options within easy reach of the center.

Summing Up

Looking forward to 2014, there’s plenty of good news all around for citywide planners, CVBs and destinations. According to a recent survey of association planners that was carried out by IMEX and ICCA, 32 percent of respondents said they had higher attendance in their 2013 events than in previous years. Almost 30 percent said they will be running more meetings in 2014 than in 2013 (compared to 22 percent in 2012).

As for corporate events, there’s Oracle OpenWorld (up 20 percent in 2013) and, on its heels, Dreamforce 2013 (the annual vendor technology conference hosted by Salesforce), which attracted 120,000 people, 30,000 more than last year’s record-breaking total. 

Carolyn Koenig is the former editorial director of Smart Meetings and a frequent contributor.

Related story: "Marketing to the Choir" explores how three cities are reaching out to planners.

More  Exciting Options

In addition to the cities mentioned in this story, many other midsize to large cities are attractive destinations for citywide meetings. They include:

  • Atlanta: The Four Diamond Omni Hotel CNN Center is located downtown within the Marietta District. The hotel rooms have spectacular views of the skyline and Centennial Olympic Park. Some 120,000 sq. ft. of meeting space are available.
  • Austin, Texas: The city boasts state-of-the-art infrastructure, innovative meeting spaces and world-class hotels nestled in the heart of the bustling downtown area. The Austin Convention Center provides 370,967 sq. ft. of meeting space. The Hilton Austin is a AAA Four Diamond hotel featuring 800 spacious guest rooms and 80,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
  • Boise, Idaho: Boise has comfortable venues for a range of tastes and budgets. In fact, the city offers more than 6,000 rooms—as many as some cities twice its size. Meeting spaces vary from intimate areas in hotels to the spacious Boise Centre located in the heart of downtown and featuring some 50,000 sq. ft. of space.
  • Denver: The Mile High city’s metro area has 8,400 downtown hotel rooms and 34,000 hotel rooms elsewhere in the metro area. The Hyatt Regency Denver at Colorado Convention Center has 1,100 guest rooms and 60,600 sq. ft. of space.
  • Oklahoma City: Offering 16,000 hotel rooms and affordable rates, this city is an ideal location for any meeting, from a conference of 25 people to a convention with 20,000 delegates. The Oklahoma City Convention Center Hotel has 313 guest rooms and 66,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
  • Toronto, Ontario, Canada: One of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, Toronto offers a plethora of meeting spaces. Topping the list is the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, with 460,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including the 28,000-square-foot Grand Ballroom.
  • Traverse City, Mich.: In addition to offering natural beauty, Traverse City has some outstanding meeting facilities and venues. Also, Grand Traverse Resort & Spa, with 600 guest rooms and 86,500 sq. ft. of meeting space, is in Acme, 16 miles away.

A Citywide that Keeps on Growing

The annual American Society for Association Executives (ASAE) convention, held this past August in Atlanta, was attended by more than 5,400 association planners and industry partners. It was held at the Georgia World Congress Center, the fourth largest convention center in the country, with 1.4 million square feet of exhibit space, three auditoriums and two grand ballrooms.

The conference generated $16 million in direct spending to the city, and according to John Graham, president and CEO of the ASAE. an “anticipated 20 percent of attendees will wind up booking meetings in Atlanta, which over the next five to 10 years could mean an economic impact of $500 million or more.”

Further, the annual conference held in Dallas in 2012 has generated (as of May 2013) 13 bookings with 69,000 room nights, which will have an estimated economic impact of $91.3 million. The skinny on the 2014 conference: It will be in Nashville, Tenn., Aug. 9-12.


Associations by the Numbers

According to ASAE, 92,331 trade and professional associations were on file with the IRS in 2010 (see for some interesting stats and background about associations in the United States). The largest member associations in the current tally are:

  • American Association of Retired Persons: more than 40 million members
  • The Humane Society of the United States: nearly 1.3 million members
  • National 4-H Council: more than 6.5 million members
  • National Parent Teacher Association: 5.2 million members
  • Boy Scouts of America: 2.1 million members