|By Suzette Parmley, The Philadelphia
InquirerMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jul. 28, 2009--Last year, the city played host to nearly 400,000 people attending conventions and meetings, guests who poured $739.8 million into the local economy, according to a report being released today by the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.
But this year, with the combined impact of the ailing economy and cuts to corporate travel, the hospitality industry is in for a very difficult fight, executive vice president Jack Ferguson said. And still to come, in early 2011, is the opening of a much-expanded Convention Center.
"Driving attendance is critical, so we'll be talking about how we are going to do that," Ferguson said yesterday in an interview. "We want to look at what we did this past year, what performance was like, and what affects performance."
The bureau's new convention marketing and sales campaign for fall, called "Philadelphia -- The Complete Package" and its 30-page annual report, titled "Times Are Tough -- We're Tougher," will be unveiled later today to about 400 stakeholders at the DoubleTree Philadelphia.
Represented will be cultural and historical venues, hotels, florists, limousine companies, and other businesses that serve the hospitality industry.
Among convention and meetings planners, emerging trends include a shorter booking window, because many are less inclined to book too far in advance; increased price sensitivity because of the economy; and greater emphasis on the ease of doing business, Ferguson said.
A new term describes what's affecting the industry today, he said:
"It's called helicoptering, which means [planners] are hovering over the top of a site or a destination, waiting to see how the paradigm affects them. Until the market comes around, and until people feel more comfortable . . . it will be very difficult out there."
Behind the annual report's glossy cover and colorful images is a clear message: City convention officials, hoteliers, and others have to be more proactive than ever before to attract business.
Ferguson said the Convention and Visitors Bureau was focusing heavily on direct sales, so its staff would have "more face time with the customer."
The bureau has increased its sales staff to 13 employees from 10 this year. It added a director of trade shows in April and a salesperson to handle the New York/North Jersey market specifically.
The trade-show director's job is to land more shows for the enlarged Convention Center. "We've shaken up the whole department from the standpoint of getting more people out on the street, not only the local market, but also key feeder markets," Ferguson said.
The strategy has many facets, he said. "It's meetings and conventions; it's international tourism; it's motorcoach; it's how we're going to communicate our message."
According to the bureau's report, some of last year's highlights included:
Philadelphia's "consumed" hotel-room nights for gatherings dropped only 7 percent to 8 percent, half the national average, compared with double-digit declines in New York City and Las Vegas.
The city is host of the Army-Navy game for six of the next nine years, for an economic impact of $35 million a year. In June, Philadelphia was awarded the game for 2010, 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2017 (the 2009 game is also being played in Philadelphia under the last contract). The three other years it is going to Baltimore and Washington. The Philadelphia Sports Congress will submit a bid today to be one of the host cities for soccer's 2018 or 2022 World Cup.
The 683,000 future meetings and convention room nights booked by the bureau will generate nearly $1.1 billion in economic impact.
Philadelphia reported a record number of international visitors -- 710,000 -- last year, an increase of 29 percent from 2007, making it the 11th-most visited international city in the United States.
But the battered global economy and the swine flu threat has resulted in fewer international guests this year, down about 2 percent, said Fritz Smith, the bureau's vice president of tourism, who is responsible for international and group-tour visits.
"We've got a couple challenges," Smith said. "Probably, the biggest challenge is the state's fiscal condition."
Pennsylvania's budget remains unbalanced in Harrisburg, and, he said, the Convention and Visitors Bureau stands to lose 50 percent to 70 percent of its $1 million annual funding for international marketing.
Another challenge: New York City. As the most popular U.S. destination among international travelers, the Big Apple also serves as a key feeder market to Philadelphia among that group. For the first time, the city began lowering many of its hotel rates this year to a level equal to Philadelphia's rates.
"A year ago," Smith said, "their hotel rates would have been 21/2 times higher."
Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or email@example.com.
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