|By Kathy Bergen, Chicago Tribune
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Sep. 15, 2005 - New Orleans' canceled convention bookings are being relocated rapidly, with some significant slices of business migrating to Chicago.
The annual convention of the American Academy for Orthopedic Surgeons will come to Chicago for the first time in decades, the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau announced Wednesday. The McCormick Place convention will be among the city's 10 biggest next year, bringing an estimated 28,000 attendees and $52 million in spending to the city in late March.
The Society of Thoracic Surgeons will convene here Jan. 30-Feb. 1, bringing an estimated 4,500 visitors, who are expected to spend more than $4 million in the city.
The Chicago bookings are just one piece of a complex, moving puzzle being worked on nationwide as associations and trade groups scramble to find alternate venues to New Orleans, battered by hurricane Katrina.
The relocations "likely will reinforce the existing market pattern, which means Las Vegas and Orlando," said Heywood Sanders, profession of public administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
"We believe that Las Vegas is probably the most likely beneficiary of the scheduling shift over the next six to nine months," Goldman Sachs analyst Steven Kent wrote in a research report.
Tourism officials across the country bristle at the notion that there's a bare-knuckles competition under way for the stranded business, saying their goals are to assist New Orleans and its trade show and convention customers.
"First and foremost . . . we're going to be able to return proceeds to the hurricane relief efforts in New Orleans," said Bill Utter, acting chief executive at the Chicago bureau.
In an innovative program, Chicago hotels have agreed to rebate $10 per room per night, with the funds funneled to recovery efforts. For these two shows, the rebates could total as much as $780,000.
And for the orthopedic surgeons' convention, United Airlines agreed to airfare discounts and McCormick Place agreed to $500,000 in discounts off the cost structure that had been in place in New Orleans.
"It was a way for us to be able to make an impact and assist in the relocation effort," said Leticia Peralta Davis, chief executive of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns and operates McCormick Place.
The urge to help is undoubtedly part of the equation. But there are some lucrative pieces of business to be had, and that's a factor that few cities can afford to overlook.
New Orleans has canceled all conventions at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center through March 31, including about 32 major events expected to generate $1.3 billion in spending citywide. Many more hotel-based meetings have been canceled as well.
And many of the nation's longstanding convention centers are hungry for business, having seen their attendance figures decline in recent years. A contraction in certain sectors of the trade show business has coincided with a convention center building boom, making the competition for events increasingly fierce.
"With due recognition of the severity of the New Orleans situation, folks will be trying to pull in business," Sanders said.
Already, many shows have relocated--a testimony to the open-arms approach of convention bureaus across the country, and to the availability of space in some markets.
The Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, which has had its share of losses, including a two-year run of International Builders' Show to Orlando, was able to accommodate the annual meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists. The meeting is expected to draw about 16,000 attendees next month.
"The speed with which Atlanta was able to give us answers was a factor," said Gina Steiner, a spokeswoman for the Park Ridge organization that has decided to cancel the social aspects of the convention this year out of respect for the losses in New Orleans.
Still, other New Orleans bookings are gravitating to the industry's busiest location, Las Vegas.
The National Association of Convenience Stores, which draws about 25,000 each fall, opted to relocate to Las Vegas Convention Center after the center moved smaller shows in order to give NACS close to 1 million square feet of exhibit space on one level.
McCormick Place lost out because it could only provide exhibit space on two levels during the group's preferred time period, said Jane Berzan, senior vice president for events, marketing and supplier relations.
But, she said, "Chicago was just amazing, trying to juggle other business to fit us in." The show historically rotates between Chicago, Las Vegas and New Orleans.
And the orthopedic surgeons were impressed with as well.
"We're so grateful to Chicago for opening their arms to our group and doing everything possible to make it very attractive for us to come to Chicago," said Dr. Stuart Weinstein, president of the Rosemont-based organization.
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