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Anaheim Convention Center Occupancy at Post-renovation
High of 81.8%, Future Bookings Solid
By Sandi Cain,  August 16, 2004

It’s taken almost three years, but Orange County’s convention business looks to be on track to at least equal pre-terrorist attack booking. 

Anaheim Convention Center occupancy is at a post-renovation high of 81.8%, future bookings are solid and attendance at recent events has exceeded expectations. Even social events—the first things to be cut in the post-Sept. 11 fallout—are starting to come back, as are business travelers. 

More than 60% of corporate travel managers said their companies are spending more on travel this year than in 2003, according to the National Business Travel Association. 

And Orange County’s hotel occupancy reached 70.4% through May, up from 64.5% a year earlier, with the average daily room rate rising 3% to $114.94. 

“We see renewed confidence from our client base,” said Edd Karlan, director of sales and marketing at the Hilton Anaheim, Orange County’s largest hotel. 

That confidence is reflected in convention numbers as well. 

In the 2002-2003 fiscal period, there were 643 conventions in the Anaheim/Orange County area that booked 1.03 million room nights. For 2003-2004, the numbers rose to 714 conventions and 1.2 million room nights. 

Hilton Anaheim
777 Convention Way
Anaheim, California

“We’re seeing different performances in different industries,” said Doug Ducate, president of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research in Chicago. 

Today’s strongest industries, Ducate said, are healthcare, business services and transportation/automotive, with manufacturing poised to come back. 

That bodes well for Orange County, where healthcare, pharmaceuticals and professional services companies have a solid base. 

For the coming year, there are 13 healthcare events listed on the convention calendar, five professional services events and seven transportation-related events. 

Five manufacturing events are scheduled, including the huge Medical Design and Manufacturing show, which shares space at the convention center with four other shows. 

While competition for meetings has grown because of new hotel rooms and meeting space along the coast, it hasn’t hampered Anaheim’s ability to book conventions. In fact, the coastal resorts have helped raise the county’s profile, as has the Fox TV show, “The O.C.” 

“Competition is more aggressive, but the business cycle is improving and spending is up,” said Tim Brown, partner at Meeting Sites Resource in Newport Beach. 

That tougher competition is one reason why the recent deal that secures the International Music Products Association (NAMM) show in Anaheim for six years was so significant. 

The NAMM show in July signed a contract to hold its convention at the Anaheim Convention Center annually through 2010. NAMM is the largest tradeshow held at the center. Last year, it brought about 72,000 attendees to the area, including many from international markets. 

Hopes are that the contract will inspire other groups to look at multi-year deals, said Greg Smith, executive director of the Anaheim Convention Center. 

“There are a lot of other NAMMs out there (to book),” Ducate said. 

Long-term bookings have been in short supply for the past three years as corporate planners, in particular, waited until the last moment to schedule meetings. 

There are 185 groups on the books for 2005 with an estimated attendance of 847,102 and four booking months remaining in the year, according to Jim Kissinger, vice president of convention sales for the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau. For future years, there are 571 groups booked for an estimated attendance of 3.5 million. 

Before the convention center expansion was completed in 2000, annual attendance had dipped to about 850,000. Last year, that number surpassed 1 million. 

Orange County is attractive to meetings groups for numerous reasons, not the least of which are the weather, proximity of hotel rooms to the convention center, entertainment, beaches and, of course, the Disneyland Resort.

The arrival of Frontier Airlines and Midwest Airlines brings the total number of airlines at John Wayne Airport to 12, with 250 daily arrivals and departures to 25 nonstop destinations. Los Angeles International Airport and JetBlue’s service out of Long Beach Airport give visitors more options. 

The county could use more restaurants and shopping near the convention center, said Charles Ahlers, president of the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau. 

“There are lots of terrific malls in Orange County, but attendees can’t see them (from the convention center), so there’s a perception we don’t have them,” he said. 

Downtown Disney resolved some of those issues, Ahlers said, but more would be a plus. 

Another challenge is at the convention center itself, where meeting trends that tilt toward more breakout sessions and shared shows could bring some internal changes. 

“We need more meeting space,” said Ahlers. 

He said the convention center has plenty of exhibit space but is stretched to meet the demand for smaller breakout space. 

“There’s a feeling among planners that they want to do all their sessions under one roof,” Ahlers said. 

In a recent survey conducted by the MPI Foundation and George P. Johnson Co., respondents cited a greater emphasis on education as a major trend for meetings and conventions. 

“One of the trends today is a need for a 60/40 or 50/50 ratio (of exhibit space to meeting space) at convention centers,” Ducate said. Anaheim’s ratio is about 70/30. 

“We’re upside down in our ratio ,” Ahlers said. 

Anaheim plays host to one of the largest co-located shows, the Medical Design & Manufacturing/Westpack/Pacific Design & Manufacturing/PLASTEC/Electronics West, which brings about 40,000 attendees to Anaheim each year. 

To address those trends, Anaheim officials are looking at ways to reconfigure some of the convention center space. 

“To grow market share, we need to be more relevant to the immediate needs of industry trends,” Ahlers said. “The more convenient and easier we make it (for planners), the more business we’ll get.” 

Other challenges involve outside forces that local promoters can’t easily control. 

“Anaheim could lose market share to more second-tier cities coming into the market,” said Brown of Meeting Sites Resource. 

Other challenges come from the Department of Homeland Security, which continues to tweak its U.S.-Visit and visa waiver programs. U.S.-Visit requires visa-holding visitors to submit digital photographs and fingerprints on entering and exiting the U.S. 

In June, Congress extended the biometric identification deadline requirements until next year after an outcry from other countries and U.S. tourism promoters. 

A July report from Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, which monitors the hospitality and tourism industries, suggested that national security regulations will remain a deterrent to inbound travel. 

Through March, overseas arrivals were only 71% of the previous peak in January 2001, in part due to new restrictions here and a requirement that foreign nationals obtain their visas in person at home. 

Though international visitors represent only about 5% of all visitors to Orange County, many of those come from Pacific Rim countries to conventions here. 

Challenges aside, convention and visitor promoters have no intention of letting anyone forget Orange County. 

With 74% of Orange County visitors arriving by car, the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau last winter launched a local driving guide that helps visitors find lesser-known gems of the county as well as the major tourist destinations. More than 50,000 driving guides have been distributed in the past six months. 

The visitor bureau also reminded meeting planners of OC’s advantages, sending a replica “woody wagon” encased in a faux orange crate to snowed-in and rain-soaked planners on the East Coast. Each orange crate bore the slogan “Wooden it be nice to be at the Anaheim Resort?” 

The promotion, Ahlers said, did its job getting meeting planners to call. 

More recently, representatives from coastal properties have met informally with tourism officials to explore ways to raise the profile of the Orange County coast. 

And bureau officials are planning to leverage Disneyland’s 50th anniversary in 2005 through a series of 50-best lists. 

In Costa Mesa, South Coast Plaza in July received a long-sought trademark for its slogan, “The Ultimate Shopping Resort.” 

The motivation for the move was to raise awareness of the value that “resort retailing” brings to an area, said Werner Escher, executive director of domestic and international markets for South Coast Plaza. 

Nearly half of the $6.8 billion spent by visitors in Orange County last year was on shopping, meals and beverages. 

The South Coast Metro area launched a Metro Lunch Bunch program that lets residents and visitors use certificates for $10 off lunch at area restaurants. 

“Cities sell features and benefits,” Ducate said. “Cities that have no features can only sell benefits and they’re the losers.”

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.


Sandi Cain
Laguna Beach CA

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