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Big conventions for Kansas City are on a downward spiral

Updated: 2013-10-12T04:03:28Z

By LYNN HORSLEY

The Kansas City Star

Civic boosters are cautiously optimistic about Kansas City’s chances of hosting the 2016 Republican National Convention, saying it would confirm its status as a major-league convention town.

But when they look at Kansas City’s long-range forecast for drawing other top-tier conventions, they see not growth but decline.

“We’re trending downward,” said Oscar McGaskey, director of Kansas City Convention and Entertainment Facilities. “From the city’s perspective, I’m concerned.”

He’s not alone. Others agree the numbers don’t look good and say it’s particularly disappointing because the city has spent hundreds of millions of dollars remaking downtown, in part to position Kansas City as a major convention draw.

“We’re down probably 30 percent where we used to be,” said Bill Lucas, past chairman of the Convention and Visitors Association and president of Crown Center Redevelopment. “Three or four years ago, from 2010 on, the numbers have been declining pretty steadily.”

From 2003 to 2012, Kansas City averaged 21 major conventions –– those with more than 1,000 hotel rooms –– per year. But this year, that number dropped to 15 major groups, with thousands fewer rooms booked. Going forward, the Convention and Visitors Association counts 16 definite large conventions for 2014 and 12 for 2015. The number plummets to six in 2017 and 2018.

Of course, the convention agency could improve those numbers with future bookings –– and says it will –– but McGaskey said its track record for turning leads into definites has also dropped since 2007 as competition among cities has intensified.

A consultant’s analysis showed that at the end of March, Kansas City had about 860,000 definite rooms booked between 2013 and 2020. That was ahead of Tampa, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C., but behind St. Louis, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis and Louisville, Ky., which all had more than 1 million rooms booked for those years. Indianapolis and San Antonio already had 2.8 million rooms booked, and Denver and Houston close to 2 million.

McGaskey also was taken aback by a recent ranking by Cvent, an event management software company that compared booking data from July 2012 to June 2013. The good news was that Kansas City ranked in the top 50 cities.

The bad news? KC barely made the list, at No. 42, behind St. Louis, Minneapolis and Portland, Ore., and many other so-called peer cities.

Still, others say the picture is not so bleak. Convention scheduling has become more compressed, so the fact that not many conventions are on the books in 2016 or 2017 isn’t alarming, said Jon Stephens, who became interim convention association president in August, after Rick Hughes retired. Stephens points out that back in 2008, the association only had six major conventions lined up for 2013, but ended up with 15.

“We’re seeing some definite numbers that I think show some positive signs,” he said, adding that 2014 is on tap to have the most hotel rooms booked since 2010.

Stephens said the CVA sales staff is focusing aggressively on bringing in more arts, science and technology groups, such as the Cerner Health Conference, which had 10,000 people at the Convention Center this week.

The stagnation in large conventions coming to Kansas City inevitably raises the question of whether the city needs a 1,000-room hotel close to the convention center to attract more large groups. It’s an issue that Kansas City leaders have debated for more than five years, with no consensus in sight.

Mayor Sly James said it’s a balancing act.

“Yes, we need one,” he said. “But no, we can’t give away the keys to the city in order to make it happen.”

No reasonable deal without large public subsidies has emerged.

James said just marketing the city better would also help bring in conventions that may not have considered Kansas City in the past.

“We’re a first-tier city,” James said. “We all know that, but we just need to communicate that to other people across the country.”

That’s where the Republican National Convention certainly comes in, said Troy Stremming, convention association board chairman. The city is vying to lure more than 35,000 attendees in 2016 and put Kansas City in the national spotlight for a week. So far, it looks like Kansas City may have an edge over Las Vegas, Phoenix and Salt Lake City, according to those familiar with the planning. A decision is expected next spring.

“We have been pleasantly surprised with the reaction we’ve seen from everyone on that front,” Stremming said. “It will give us the opportunity to highlight a lot of things in this community that make us an attractive convention city.”

Some big losses

Back in 2003, Kansas City hosted 31 large conventions, with more than 373,000 attendees. But the number has dropped ever since, with just 15 large conventions and about 122,000 attendees this year.

Major losses include WalMart, which announced in 2009 it was moving its annual managers meeting to Orlando, costing 11,000 room-nights annually. In 2010, Sam’s Club halted its twice-a-year convocations, which filled hotels every February and August, for an estimated $7.4 million in annual economic impact.

The biggest loss is SkillsUSA, which books nearly 30,000 room-nights, at $14 million in estimated economic impact. It moves to Louisville from 2015 to 2020, although Stephens said Kansas City will certainly try to get it back after that.

McGaskey said those losses also affect the money he has to run the city’s convention facilities. The city now gets about $2.5 million from conventions and trade shows. Because of lost conventions, McGaskey expects a $350,000 revenue decline next fiscal year. Annual losses could exceed $500,000 if bookings don’t improve for 2015 and beyond, he said.

McGaskey, Lucas and others acknowledge the convention game has become hyper-competitive, including the size of groups Kansas City goes after.

“You have 20 cities that can vie for this business,” Lucas said. “Twenty years ago it was five or six cities.”

McGaskey notes that after the economic downturn in 2008, cities like Las Vegas and Chicago that didn’t usually seek out mid-sized conventions started trying to poach that business.

The other challenge is that, while Kansas City has expanded Bartle Hall and added the Sprint Center, the Power & Light District and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, many other mid-sized cities have added shiny new amenities as well.

“Groups are shopping Kansas City; they’re taking a look. They’re just not buying as much as they are in other markets,” said Jeff Eastman, owner of an Overland Park-based consulting business that analyzes convention data for 65 cities in the United States and Canada.

Despite Kansas City’s huge investment in a new downtown, Eastman said, its convention bookings have dropped from 350,000 annual room-nights before the recession to 260,000 room nights this year.

Hotel question

There’s considerable debate on how to grow that business back. Eastman and McGaskey think the key is a new 1,000-room hotel to provide at least 2,600 rooms within walking distance of the convention center.

“Quite frankly, if you stay stagnant the way you are…you’re really backing up,” Eastman said. “You’re going in reverse, because everyone’s pulling ahead of you.”

But Lucas and others remain unconvinced that the city would draw enough new groups to justify a $300 million project, and they worry it might rob business from other hotels.

“We would need to almost triple our room-nights to absorb the inventory,” said Lucas, whose company includes the Westin and Sheraton hotels at Crown Center.

For now, there are ongoing conversations about hotel deals but none yet meet the city’s criteria, which includes not adding to its overall debt load, James said.

While the hotel remains in limbo, almost everyone agrees the city needs a more aggressive convention sales strategy. Stephens says he’s pushing that, even in his interim position, while the CVA launches a national search for a new president.

“We’ve always been appealing to family-oriented conventions, sports and nonprofits, but we also really need to take a look at technology, agribusiness and science because that’s where we’re gaining a strong foothold nationally as a city,” he said.

Stremming and others say they have confidence in Stephens’ strategy to sell more and sell smarter.

“Youth, sports, smaller NCAA events, there’s plenty of stuff to go after,” Lucas said. “We could definitely be one of the top destinations in the Midwest.”

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.

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