“Meet me in San Diego” probably doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Meet me in St. Louis, Louis.”
But local meeting planners and destination managers are ringing up more sales this year than last, as they distance themselves from the tight-fisted corporate budget years that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“Actually, meetings and conventions started to soften before 9/11,” said Patti Roscoe, the chairwoman of San Diego-based PRA Destination Management Inc., which has 17 locations nationwide. “They started coming back last year. This year looks to be a good year for us, and next year looks strong as well.
PRA Destination Management was founded in 1981. Roscoe owns the two offices that are in San Diego. Together, they have 40 full-time employees and 100 people who are on call to work part time. The other locations are franchised.
Destination managers cater to meeting and convention planners who need help with arrangements that fall outside the realm of the actual meeting, such as coordinating hotels, tours and entertainment, Roscoe said.
“Meeting planners are responsible for providing the content of the meetings , the education and information,” Roscoe said. “They depend on us to know what a particular destination has to offer from the simple to the spectacular. We provide them with the sizzle.”
Lately, there’s been more sizzle.
“During the lean years we were doing some nice parties, with good music, but big-name entertainers were not as prolific as before 9/11. Now we’re starting to see big-name entertainers and well-known speakers again.”
Corporations, however, are exercising caution, she added. They don’t want to be chided for overspending and they’re also demanding more for their buck.
“Clients are booking further out than we’ve seen in four or five years. We’re still getting last-minute business, which is always appreciated,” Roscoe said. “We’re also seeing bookings into 2007 and 2008. This is a solid reflection of more confidence in the economy.”
Bill Yahres, the vice president of sales and marketing for the Event Team, a San Diego-based destination management company founded in December 1991, said his firm’s business has been up about 40 percent this year, and he expects that 2006 will be a record breaker.
The Event Team employs 12 people full time and has an additional 75 or so who work part time, as needed.
Like Roscoe, he said he’s getting more calls from clients who want to book well in advance of their meetings, but he’s also getting more calls closer to events.
He agrees with Roscoe that an improved economy is driving more business.
But he also thinks that San Diego, which saw the opening of Petco Park and the San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum in 2004, deserves much of the credit for attracting more corporate-related meetings.
Help From Meeting Planners
Both Roscoe and Yahres said that while approximately 20 percent of their business comes as a spinoff from events at the 2.6 million-square-foot San Diego Convention Center, the majority is from events in hotels and elsewhere.
Reint Reinders, the president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau, said that he expects the continued growth in the county’s meeting business will come from hotels.
“Look at the numbers over the last two years,” he said. “The group hotel room nights increased by 6 percent in 2004 over 2003 and when you consider how many room nights San Diego does as a destination, that’s a lot.”
By room nights, Reinders was referring to the number of nights that individual hotel rooms are rented.
“In 2003, there were 12.8 million room nights, and group business accounted for 30 percent of that,” he added. “In 2004, there were 13.6 million room nights and the group business accounted for 36 percent, so that’s a huge growth area.”
Reinders said that the challenges facing the San Diego Convention Center Corp. in attracting bookings are the “finite amount of large association (convention) business available across the country and the convention center is maxed out in terms of size.”
Top Conventions Coming
Although corporate business is smaller on a per-meeting basis, sources pointed out that it tends to favor hotel accommodations, and ramps up in a burgeoning economy.
Fred Sainz, the vice president of public affairs for the Convention Center Corp., agreed with Reinders concerning the fact that there is a finite number of associations, but he said that the Convention Center has been able to secure the most lucrative conventions available. Some examples include the upcoming convention of the American Speech Language Association that is to bring 12,000 people to town from Nov. 18-20 and the American Thoracic Society, which will bring 16,000 between May 21-23.
“We have managed to cherry-pick the very best of that business,” Sainz said. “But I would also say that given our size we could probably accommodate 80 percent of the number of conventions.
“Every year there are 5,000 conventions and we have a client list of approximately 400 of those,” Sainz said.
However, the size of the Convention Center is not the problem, it’s not having enough hotel rooms in Downtown to house conventioneers in the event that large conventions ran concurrently, Sainz said.
“We will be able to accommodate more conventions once we get that new Hilton on the east side of the Convention Center,” he said.
While the proposed 1,200-room Hilton San Diego Convention Center hotel awaits financing, Sainz said he’s optimistic that news will come on it soon.