|By Jason Cato, The Pittsburgh
Tribune-ReviewMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Feb. 23, 2009 - A volleyball tournament, a television evangelist's appearance and a gathering for people who like to wear furry animal costumes were some of 2007's biggest draws to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
Such events bring thousands of visitors and millions of dollars to Pittsburgh, but for years local tourism officials have said the Downtown building will never live up to its potential until someone builds a major hotel next door.
"That's the engine to the Cadillac," said Joseph McGrath, CEO of regional tourism agency VisitPittsburgh.
Critics say the $373 million center along the Allegheny River, triple the size of the old one, was a waste of taxpayers' money. Spending more to subsidize a hotel, hoping to attract larger conventions, would make it an even bigger bust, they say.
"It's bad enough if you build a convention center and it doesn't work," said Heywood Sanders, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio who studies convention center performance. "But if you go on to build a hotel, too, now you've got a hotel to fill."
A high-end hotel with 500 rooms, coupled with the 616 rooms in the nearby Westin Convention Center Hotel, would boost Pittsburgh over the 1,000-room threshold industry experts deem a prerequisite for bagging larger conventions. About 2,300 hotel rooms are within a mile of the convention center, lagging far behind competitors Indianapolis, Baltimore and Detroit, according to VisitPittsburgh.
The city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority, which owns the convention center, wanted Westin owner Forest City Enterprises to build a 500-room companion hotel. But negotiations broke off in September because the Cleveland-based company wanted to build one with 300 rooms.
Pittsburgh's hotel boom -- with 17 projects that would add about 2,400 rooms citywide by 2010 -- won't help attract bigger conventions, McGrath said.
"People confuse building hotels with the kind of rooms we need," he said.
Meeting planners want conventioneers "under one roof" and near the convention site, McGrath said, and 150-room, limited-service hotels without meeting spaces, ballrooms or catering services are nearly useless for conventions.
This month, Kiwanis International passed on Pittsburgh for its 2012 convention, deciding to take its 5,000 attendees and 13,950 room nights either to New Orleans, Seattle, Washington or Vancouver, Canada, according to an internal VisitPittsburgh report. The reason? "Lack of a mega hotel," the report states.
Pittsburgh occasionally lands larger conventions. The National Association of Black Engineers will bring 10,000 people in 2012, and the Barbershop Harmony Society International Convention will attract another 15,000 in 2015. The National Rifle Association, which drew 61,000 people to its 2004 convention and trade show in Pittsburgh, returns in 2011.
But the absence of a mega hotel last year cost Pittsburgh 80,000 room nights, or $19 million in direct spending from visitors who never came, McGrath said.
When convention centers don't live up to their billing, Sanders said, the first reaction is to request a hotel. If that doesn't work, calls are made for better entertainment and restaurant options.
"The answer is, there's always another excuse," he said.
McGrath said that's not the case.
"People will say that's an excuse because I'm not selling it, but I am."
The old convention center drew 86,600 people to 17 major conventions in 2000, according to VisitPittsburgh. The number of major conventions has increased each year since the center opened, from 26 in 2004 to 39 in 2007. Attendance at those meetings was 159,450 in 2004 and 205,542 in 2006 before dropping to 97,970 in 2007, when the convention center closed for nine weeks after a beam collapse in the second-floor loading dock.
Direct spending by visitors more than doubled from $51.9 million in 2000 to $108.8 million in 2006.
The 1.5-million-square-foot David L. Lawrence Convention Center hosted 18 of the 25 largest Pittsburgh-area conventions in 2007. Of those, 17 attracted between 1,500 and 4,000 people. Those included events sponsored by Benny Hinn Ministries and Anthrocon's "Furries" -- which drew 4,000 and 2,500 attendees, respectively. The largest was East Coast Volleyball's NorthEast Qualifier, which drew 10,000.
VisitPittsburgh excludes from its figures larger events such as the Home & Garden Show and PirateFest, reasoning that they draw mostly local residents who would spend money here anyway. Instead, the tourism agency measures its success by the number of nights out-of-town visitors stay in local hotels and how much money they spend.
Figures for 2008, which McGrath called the "best year ever," are expected March 26.
The Allegheny Institute has studied the convention center data. Jake Haulk, president of the Castle Shannon-based policy group, said he believes two to three times as many people would have to attend conventions in Pittsburgh to justify the center's cost.
Instead of spending tax money -- the state has allotted $34 million for a convention center hotel -- Haulk suggests VisitPittsburgh pursue multiple small conventions, with some meeting simultaneously.
"It needs to give up on big conventions and try to stay as busy as it can," he said. "If it gets profitable enough, somebody will build the hotel they want."
Joseph McInerney, president of the Washington-based American Hotel and Lodging Association, thinks that strategy could work.
"The rooms might not be where you want them, but a good salesperson can sell them," McInerney said. "You take what you have and make sure you work it to your advantage."
McGrath said hosting two conventions simultaneously is rarely feasible, particularly without a hotel. He believes bigger is better.
"We would not be begging for the opportunity to break our backs if we didn't believe there was lost potential," he said.
Jason Cato can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7840.
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