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Task Force Determines Kansas City's Main Competition in the Convention
 Industry is not Top Tier Cities but Rather Second-tier Cities
 Such as Omaha and Oklahoma City
By Rick Alm, The Kansas City Star, Mo.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Oct. 26, 2005 - Kansas City should consider creating an agency to more efficiently manage and market its growing inventory of arenas, convention facilities and tourism attractions, the Civic Council said Tuesday.

The recommendation was presented to the executive board of the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association by James A. Heeter, a former city councilman and mayoral candidate who is chairman of the Civic Council's Tourism Task Force, which studied the issue for more than a year.

Heeter stressed that the private, 40-year-old Civic Council, which represents many of Kansas City's top corporations, was not calling for making the city's convention and tourism agencies private.

"We've found much improvement in the past year," he said. "But there are some things we can do better. The idea is to run these facilities much more like private businesses … with better customer service and efficiencies.

"We have an extraordinary product to sell."

But Heeter said that the task force was surprised to learn that Kansas City's main competition in the convention industry in recent years had not been Chicago, Atlanta and other major urban destination cities, but rather Omaha, Neb., Oklahoma City and other so-called second-tier cities.

"Kansas City doesn't have the pizzazz" to compete at the top level, Heeter said. He acknowledged, however, that the situation was improving, with the Power & Light entertainment district, Sprint Center arena and other attractions under construction downtown.

He attributed Kansas City's convention plight to shortcomings in "leadership, cooperation and focus."

"We need a process in place that will build on the achievements of the past year, that will carry us forward for the next 20," he said.

Heeter's remarks and the Civic Council's 13-page report were received politely by the board, but with little evident warmth.

"I think a lot of the information is dated," said Oscar McGaskey, director of the city's Convention Facilities Department, which oversees Bartle Hall, Kemper Arena and other city venues. "I don't know where some of his numbers came from."

Association chairman Bill George said it was unlikely that the city would surrender control of any assets to a tourism authority.

City Council member Bonnie Sue Cooper said the report overlooked what she said was "the responsibility of the private sector" to assist in the marketing and success of the city's visitor industry.

"They have a vested interest," she said. "That needs to be recognized."

In a long response to Heeter, City Manager Wayne Cauthen, also an authority executive board member, said, "What we're doing is catching up" with scores of other cities that have surpassed Kansas City since the mid-1970s with thriving downtowns, expanded convention halls and modern sports arenas.

Cauthen agreed that "the hotel vacancies we currently have in our marketplace are unacceptable," and he said the city took a risk in investing millions of public dollars in the downtown revival now under way.

"We'll know soon," he said, "whether it's enough" to push Kansas City back onto the national convention scene.

Cauthen agreed with Heeter that a strong regional marketing message must be made, and soon, to the rest of the nation. But Cauthen said that effort was already under way.

Cauthen was briefed by Heeter earlier this week on the report's contents, and in a written response to Heeter he made some of the same points on the economics of the tourism industry.

The Civic Council study compared convention hall operating expenses and revenues in nine cities and ranked Kansas City last, saying it collected just 41 percent of Bartle Hall's annual operating budget from convention hall revenues.

Some top-tier destination cities such as Indianapolis, Las Vegas and Atlanta topped the list at more than 100 percent -- meaning their convention facilities more than paid for themselves, according to the Civic Council study.

"Kansas City," said Cauthen in his letter, "is often required to provide significant rental reductions and, in some cases, complimentary rental space, to lure a convention to the city.

"With a more competitive facility and with more attractions in the vicinity of the convention center, the city's need to compete so heavily on a price basis should be diminished."

Some cities, Cauthen said, squeeze their hotels for convention center subsidies to help meet costs, and the city manager didn't rule out such a relationship here.

"Consideration should be given to the possibility," he said, since hotels reap the greatest benefits from large conventions lured with deep discounts.

Cauthen also noted that Heeter's report compared Kansas City's convention economics with those of larger cities.

"I am not suggesting that improvements in Kansas City's financial performance are not needed, but I am requesting that we make comparisons that are most logical," Cauthen said.

Cauthen also frowned on the notion of a superagency of some kind to oversee the city's convention and tourism assets, instead endorsing the Convention & Visitors Association, which has been doing that since 1966 under contract to the city.

Cauthen did agree, however, that some community-based goals and objectives should be set "to evaluate achievement" as the city moves into a new tourism era.


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Copyright (c) 2005, The Kansas City Star, Mo.

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