“The competition is stiff” in the $139 billion-a-year convention, business meeting, and event business, said Gretchen Hall chief operating officer of the industry association Destinations International. “It’s always been competitive, but right now destinations are really investing in additional infrastructure and looking for all kinds of ways to differentiate themselves.”
Major convention and events bookings are fully back to their pre-COVID pace, according to the global travel forecasting and intelligence company Tourism Economics. Requests for proposals for future events are nearly 20 percent ahead of that level.
Tourism destinations are already jostling to land this business. That’s because big events guarantee large and predictable numbers of visitors — often during slow times — who spend more.
“The most important thing in business is certainty,” said Brian Lowack president and CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, Fla. “When we know that for a certain period of time over the next X number of years that we have X number of beds full, we can plan our marketing accordingly to fill the other periods.”
Cities are now booking events as far away as 2034, said Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination, D.C., in Washington and past national chair of the US Travel Association.
“So it’s easier to track how well you’re doing far out into the future, versus the leisure market, which is more fluid based on unpredictable circumstances,” Ferguson said.
Meanwhile, events themselves are getting bigger, he said. “Especially coming after the last few years, there’s a lot of demand. People really want to get out.”
That demand has been filling up destinations year-round. But now travel is returning to its pre-pandemic patterns, with some lulls that meetings, conferences, and sports events can fill.
Cities that can handle those kinds of big events “are all going after them,” said Ferguson. “The economic impact is going to be greater because people are going to spend more. The exhibitors are going to spend a lot of money, the attendees are going to spend a lot of money, the associations are going to spend a lot of money.”
Many people who come to a city for a convention or event also extend their stays beyond it, or resolve to return; about half of business travelers have extended a work trip for leisure in the past year and 82 percent said they’d like to, a survey by the American Hotel & Lodging Association found.
Sporting events in particular bring exposure to a destination, too, which could attract still more guests.
“We see it as a significant opportunity to not only bring visitors to the destination and create economic impact, but the media and PR impact of these events is huge,” said Lowack, whose region also hosts a grand prix — “it’s like a three-hour commercial for downtown St. Petersburg,” he said — and the PGA’s Valspar Championship at Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club.
On top of those, St. Pete/Clearwater has locked down the WWE’s Royal Rumble this winter, which is projected to attract 42,000 fans, with a $70 million economic impact, Lowack said. The golf tournament draws 125,000 people with a $75 million economic impact and 12,500 hotel room nights, and the grand prix pulls in 140,000 spectators who spend $61 million.
Numbers like those are among the reasons sports events are getting outsize attention from tourism planners.
Despite criticisms about disruption and early problems with the condition of the track, the grand prix in Las Vegas generated an estimated $1.3 billion — more than double even the expected haul from the upcoming Super Bowl, and in what is normally the city’s slowest season.
Cities keep adding more infrastructure to accommodate events like those. Las Vegas opened Allegiant Stadium in 2020, and, with the debut in December of the $3.7 billion, 3,600-room Fontainebleau hotel and resort, now has 156,000 hotel rooms in an 8-mile radius.
“We’re viewing it as an evolution in terms of the infrastructure we have available to us,” said Lori Nelson-Kraft, senior vice president of communications at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “That’s why Las Vegas is equipped to host such marquee events.”
All of those rooms and sporting facilities need to be constantly filled, however, further fueling the competition for these big events. Las Vegas just negotiated a 10-year extension to keep the National Finals Rodeo coming back each year until 2035, along with the 170,000 cowboy hat- and cowboy boot-wearing ticket holders it brings for all or part of the 10-day competition and the equal number of fans who come just for the concerts, shows, and viewing parties.
This may be great for the destinations, but it can mean hassles for people traveling to cities during big events with no intention of attending them — or who don’t even know they’re underway. Rooms grow less available, restaurants fill up, and prices soar. In Las Vegas, during the grand prix, for instance, taxis between the airport and Strip hotels added a $15 surcharge.
“I’d say the pros outweigh the cons,” however, said Ferguson, in Washington, where conventions brought in $245 million last year — a figure projected to jump to $382 million this year, thanks to events including JazzFest, World Pride, and the NATO 75th anniversary summit.
“We’re an economic development association,” he said. “These events mean millions of tax dollars, which the community benefits from. That’s quite frankly why we’re here.”
As the stakes get higher, cities have to offer new inducements to nail down meetings and events. D.C. touts its three airports and many hotel rooms, for example, Ferguson said. But “they’re also asking questions about our social responsibility, our [diversity, equity, and inclusion] policies, what are we doing about sustainability.”
That’s causing problems for some destinations in places with divisive politics, he said. “As states are passing laws and making decisions that might impact them negatively, we’re seeing groups saying they’re not going to those states because of those decisions.”
But one mega event in particular has consistently stayed above the fray, while packing hotel rooms, restaurants, and other businesses, according to Stephen Borecki, general manager at the Fairfield Inn & Suites New Orleans Downtown/French Quarter.
The 2013 Super Bowl brought more revenue to the city than any event he’s experienced, Borecki said. But when Taylor Swift performs for three days this year, it will produce even more than that.
“I don’t know of another person or event that I will ever see that draws this much demand,” he said.
It’s not just him, The SpringHill Suites Pittsburgh North Shore sold out in less than a day when Swift performed there in June, said general manager John Costello.
“I think we should all send Taylor Swift a gift basket for what those two concert days did for the city of Pittsburgh,” he said.
Jon Marcus can be reached at [email protected].