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In Recent Years, the Fall Convention Business
Has Been Scarce in Anaheim

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By Sandi Cain, August 2005
Orange County Business Journal Staff

With one of the best tourism summers on record under way in Orange County, the travel industry is hoping the fall meeting and convention season can rebound from the past few years to keep the momentum going.

In recent years, fall convention business has been scarce in Anaheim, the county’s convention hub. 

The demise of several technology shows, the decline of some medical group business due to a lack of small meeting rooms and the loss of a few groups to Las Vegas have contributed to the slow fall seasons, said Charles Ahlers, president of the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau.

As far back as January, most OC hoteliers were concerned about their bookings for fall. Some still are.

“Fall is a challenge for large hotels,” said Tim Price, director of marketing at the Anaheim Marriott. Price said short-term bookings hamper the ability to predict how the season will turn out. “It’s looking steady, not stellar,” he said.

Hotels like the Hilton Anaheim—OC’s largest—have been hurt by cancellations, while the Hyatt Regency Orange County said September and November business has picked up. 

And the Coast Anaheim, slated for a major makeover, chose to close down from Sept. 6 through the end of the year in order to be back up in time for the busier January convention business. The hotel will reopen as a Sheraton.

General manager Russ Cox said the slower pace of fall business was a factor in the decision.

“I’ve heard the booking pace is ahead of last year, but it’s not a strong year for conventions,” he said.

Disneyland Resort hotels have more groups on the books because Disneyland’s 50th anniversary is drawing tourists. “We’re attracting more convention business and consumers this year,” said Tony Bruno, vice president and general manager of Disneyland resort hotels and Downtown Disney.

The picture may have improved, but it still has a long way to go before it returns to the heyday of Telecomm West and the National Electronic Packaging Convention, which together used to bring more than 50,000 people to town in the fall.

“We’re scrambling, but doing well,” Ahlers said. The bureau’s sales team has focused on building fall business. “Their efforts are showing significant success,” he said.

Since January, the bureau has booked 70 fall groups for 2005-2009 with an expected attendance of more than 103,000. Twenty of those groups will arrive in 2005, adding 22,000 attendees to the 112,000 already expected late in the year. The groups will produce roughly 75,000 hotel room nights. 

The largest group added in recent months is a Herbalife International Inc. convention that is expected to bring in 5,000 attendees.

The company chose the Anaheim Convention Center for several reasons, said Tom Harms, Herbalife’s vice president, U.S. region. Herbalife wanted space to run English and Spanish-language meetings at the same time, entertainment nearby, an easy place for travelers to get to, and “nice and affordable hotel space” within walking distance of the center, Harms said.

The recent fall bookings, though, are far from the 300,000 convention delegates in the first quarter.

It’s a dilemma somewhat unique to the OC market.

According to the Chicago-based Center for Exhibition Industry Research, fall is the busiest time of year for convention business nationwide. October typically is the busiest month.

December is the only slow month nationwide, a Center for Exhibition Industry Research spokesperson said.

Statewide, July and August are the slowest months.

Ahlers said he believes the weather is a factor in luring fall business.

“Good weather exists universally in the fall across the country and creates stiff competition,” he said.

Meeting planners from other parts of the country consistently rate California weather as one factor in choosing it as a destination.
“The weather is always the No. 1 reason to come (to Southern California),” said Steven Copeland, national accounts director for convention planning company Conference Direct in Los Angeles.

Another factor relates to changes in what companies and groups want out of their meetings.

The Anaheim Convention Center is the largest in total space on the West Coast and easily accommodates two simultaneous tradeshows. 
But in the past few years, meetings have become more focused on educational sessions to justify their expense. Those meetings typically require many small meeting rooms rather than huge exhibit space.

That’s particularly true for associations, which account for about 75% of Anaheim’s convention business. 

“Most medical meetings are in the fall and we don’t have enough meeting rooms to host a lot of those,” Ahlers said.

The American Heart Association once brought as many as 35,000 people to Anaheim for national scientific sessions. But the last time they were here, they needed space for 1,400 small sessions in three days, Ahlers said.

Even with more than a dozen convention hotels within easy walking distance of the Anheim Convention Center, that’s a reach for the area.
By comparison, about 25% of the events at the San Diego Convention Center are medical conventions. 

Drug companies account for one of the fastest-growing sectors for meetings.

This fall, the San Diego Convention Center will host 74 events with 398,000 attendees, up from 71 events with 299,000 attendees a year ago.

“Fall is a very good time of year for us,” said Fred Sainz, vice president of public affairs for the San Diego Convention Center Corp. He said that finding space for learning sessions hasn’t been a problem.

In Anaheim, there are 38 events booked at the convention center for fall. Ten of those events will account for almost 100,000 attendees. 
Other events are consumer shows or meetings booked directly by the convention center. Projected attendance wasn’t available for these events. 

A proposed Business Improvement District that would fund a revamp of some convention center space to allow for more small meeting space is still on the table in Anaheim, but has taken a back seat to a busy summer tourist season.

Though fall convention business may be at a premium, OC hotel operators are more optimistic about fall bookings than they were eight months ago, particularly along the coast.

“Our group business picks up in the fourth quarter,” said James Engelby, corporate sales manager for the Doubletree Guest Suites in Dana Point.

Training groups and product launches contribute to the pick-up, he said.

In Laguna Beach, Montage Resort & Spa reported an increase of 20% this fall versus a year earlier. 

Surf & Sand Resort also reported an increase. 

“We’re anticipating very strong business through Thanksgiving,” said Surf & Sand general manager Blaise Bartell. 

And Laguna Cliffs Marriott is set for a “record-breaking October,” said general manager Jeroen Gerresse.

Having a few slow months doesn’t put a damper on the overall convention market. Anaheim still anticipates drawing more than 1 million convention delegates this year. And with a trend toward short-term bookings in both the corporate and association sectors, more business is likely to be headed this way.

“Anaheim comes together as a team to sell the destination,” Ahlers said.

Economic factors come into play as well.

For corporate business, Anaheim and Orange County aren’t as costly as other destinations. 

The 2005 Business Travel News corporate travel index ranks Anaheim at only No. 35 among the most costly business destinations. Anaheim came in at $299 per day for hotel, car rental and food expenses.

Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Phoenix and Las Vegas all have higher daily costs, with Las Vegas checking in at $367 per day. The average daily cost for the Western region is $311 per day.

A recent Business Travel News report found that 27% of companies expect to hold more meetings of 200 people or more this year.

Disneyland’s anniversary party will continue through 2006 and may inspire more conventioneers to bring the family along. More than half of all business travelers now report taking at least one combined business and pleasure trip in the past year—and 70% said they brought a family member along.

The Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau also is launching its first fall promotion. Called “50 Days of Fall,” the promotion might encourage more combined business and leisure business. 

The promotion is co-sponsored by Hotels.com, which is featuring Anaheim and OC on its Web page and reportedly will promote the county in an upcoming commercial.

Holiday events such as Knott’s Scary Farm—a month-long Halloween fest—and Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas at Disneyland’s Haunted House tend to bolster visitor numbers during slower times.

This year, the December introduction of Pirate’s Dinner Adventure—a show that floats in a 250,000-gallon indoor lagoon—may draw groups to Buena Park for new off-site entertainment. Pirate’s Dinner Adventure, which will occupy the former Buffalo Bill’s site, also will tailor its show for convention groups.

And the debut of another interactive ride, Monsters Inc., at Disney’s California Adventure in January will keep some public focus on Anaheim, while construction of the Pelican Hill Resort at Newport Coast is sure to draw more attention to coastal OC. 
 

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Sandi Cain is a freelance writer and contributor to the Orange County Business Journal and meetings industry publications. She specializes in hospitality, tourism and travel. Cain holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Kent State University in Ohio, where she majored in social studies. A former high school teacher, she has written for niche-market sports publications in the U.S., England and Australia and formerly worked in both the printing and high-tech industries. A Cleveland, Ohio native, Cain hasbeen a resident of Laguna Beach since the late ’70s. She enjoys travel, gardening, reading and spoiling her three cats.
.

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Contact:
Sandi Cain
Laguna Beach CA
949-497-2680
scainado@earthlink.net

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Tony Bruno, VP and General Manager of Disneyland Resort Hotels, Maps Out 2004 Changes / Sandi Cain / March 2004
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Tourism Industry Rethinks Promotion on Security Issues Data / Sandi Cain / February 2004
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An Oranges to Oranges Comparison; Anaheim and Orlando Share Tourism and Meeting Destination Bent, Differ in Some Areas / Sandi Cain / August 2003
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