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The Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau Scrambling to Explain
 2004 Dismal Convention Bookings; Last Year Convention
 Attendance Down to 21,300

By Rosalie Rayburn, Albuquerque Journal, N.M.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Mar. 21, 2005 - ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau is scrambling to explain last year's dismal convention bookings to city councilors, who could decide tonight to pull the plug on the bureau.

Bureau president and CEO Dale Lockett met last week with several city councilors, including Brad Winter, Eric Griego and Michael Cadigan to try to win their support to renew the bureau's contract.

If approved, the bureau would receive $4.35 million, about $3.6 million from lodgers tax and $750,000 from a hospitality fee collected by Albuquerque hotels and motels.

The bureau has marketed Albuquerque exclusively since 1980.

The bureau has faced plenty of criticism in recent years. In 2003, former City Councilor Greg Payne called for terminating the bureau's contract, arguing it wasn't productive enough, especially in bringing more business to the Convention Center. It was also suggested the bureau could promote the zoo, museums, Old Town and other attractions more effectively.

The council voted to put the contract out to bid. But after soliciting bids in 2004, only one company, which was not in the convention business, submitted a proposal.

ACVB's proposal received an 85 rating compared with a 55 rating for its competitor.

Charlie Gray, president of the Greater Albuquerque Innkeepers Association, doesn't like last year's bookings performance. But he believes the bureau remains the best choice for the job and should have more time to see whether changes that have been made will result in more bookings.

"ACVB has made changes and progress, and we believe we are beginning to see positive results," Gray wrote in a letter to city councilors last week, urging them to approve a new contract.

The council is scheduled to vote tonight on whether to renew the contract, as recommended by Mayor Martin Chavez and a selection committee.

But Winter, who has been an outspoken critic of the bureau's performance, insists change is needed.

In 2000, convention attendance peaked at 137,810. The next year it dropped to 60,210, and it has continued to drop since then. In 2002, it was 55,810, the next year it was 45,795. In 2004, attendance was down to 21,300.

Those figures prompted Winter to suggest the city seek other ways to attract convention business. Winter said he took the same position when he met with Lockett last week. "I told him things need to change. We need to do things differently and be more innovative," Winter told the Journal.

Lockett and Gray said they are worried that concerns over the convention attendance figures could prompt councilors to renew the contract on a monthly basis, or abolish the bureau and split the money among other groups, such as the Balloon Fiesta and Biopark.

The Innkeepers Association's Gray said abolishing the bureau would harm hotel occupancy and attendance at other city attractions. A single agency dedicated to booking conventions is best, he said.

Also, meeting planners arrange events years in advance, and they want a long-term commitment, Gray said.

If the bureau's contract is not renewed, it would have to close, Lockett predicted. The bureau has 34 full-time and four part-time employees.

Lockett insists changes have been made. He was hired 14 months ago and has since hired new sales staff, advertised in new markets and developed new tours to show Albuquerque's attractions to meeting planners, Lockett said in an interview with the Journal.

But he said it takes a couple of years to see results because that's how far ahead many conventions book.

He also said bookings for 2005 have picked up, and the outlook for 2006 is promising with 20 events already on the calendar.

"(But) all those changes could be wiped out on Monday," Lockett said.

National decline.

Albuquerque's drop in convention bookings mirrors a national trend that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to a Brookings Institution report released this year.

The decline has been attributed to industry consolidation, reduced business travel because of higher costs and difficulty traveling, and better technology for teleconferencing.

Meanwhile, leisure tourism has been on the upswing in Albuquerque and nationwide. Santa Fe-based Southwest Planning & Marketing reported that tourism in Albuquerque jumped by 6 percent last year. Those visitors are not considered part of bureau bookings.

Conventions represent about 12.5 percent of Albuquerque's total tourism business. Non-convention business tourism accounts for about 12.5 percent and leisure tourism for 75 percent of the city's total, according to Southwest Planning.

Griego has said the city needs another full-service hotel near the Convention Center to attract more major conventions. That hotel would be in addition to the soon-to-open 261-room Embassy Suites near Lomas and I-25, which may help bring more meetings to town.

Some city councilors agree with Lockett and Gray.

"We haven't given the changes that have been implemented time to work," said Councilor Craig Loy.

He said the city has no alternative plan for convention marketing if it doesn't renew the bureau's contract.

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To see more of the Albuquerque Journal, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.abqjournal.com.

Copyright (c) 2005, Albuquerque Journal, N.M.

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