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Opinion: St. Louis Region Should Stop Chasing Big Conventions, Should Instead Invest in Improving the Quality of Life for Residents & Tourists

October 10, 2018 Featured, STL Region No Comments

Every region has an entity responsible for getting people from other regions to visit…and spend money.

The St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission (DBA Explore St. Louis) is the official destination marketing organization responsible for selling St. Louis City and St. Louis County as a convention and meeting site and as a leisure travel destination. Explore St. Louis works to attract citywide conventions, one-hotel meetings, sporting events, group tours and individual leisure travelers to St. Louis. More than 700 local and regional businesses are partners with Explore St. Louis.

The St. Louis Tourism Bureau was founded in 1909 by a group of local business leaders, after seeing the success of the 1904 World’s Fair. In 1984, the Bureau was restructured and combined with the St. Louis County Office of Tourism to form the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission (SLCVC), a regional commission of the State of Missouri. Dedicated funding for the SLCVC and the Regional Arts Commission through a new tax on hotel rooms was implemented. The SLCVC’s board was reorganized in 1991 to reflect the organization’s new role in managing the expanded America’s Center Convention Complex including the 67,000-seat Dome at America’s Center, 1,400- seat Ferrara Theatre, a 28,000 square-foot ballroom and the St. Louis Executive Conference Center. (Prior to the expansion, the convention center had been operated by the City of St. Louis.)

The SLCVC’s 11-member Board of Commissioners is headed by a chairman appointed by the Governor of Missouri. Five Board members are appointed by the Mayor of the City of St. Louis and five are appointed by the St. Louis County Executive. According to the organization’s enabling legislation, three of each official’s appointees must be actively engaged in the St. Louis hotel industry. (Explore St. Louis)

Their name includes ‘convention’, which comes before ‘visitors’. So, like nearly every other region in the country, they chase conventions. It takes a lot of vacationing families of four to equal one convention with 6,000 attendees, so conventions are typically how cities/regions try to fill hotel rooms.

Cervantes Convention Center. 801 Convention Center Plaza. St. Louis Mo. August, 1977. Photograph (35mm Kodachrome) by Ralph D’Oench, 1977. Missouri Historical Society Photographs and Prints Collections. NS 30747. Scan © 2006, Missouri Historical Society.

The choices for small conventions/conferences in the St. Louis region are numerous. Collinsville IL and St. Charles MO each have facilities, as do many hotels throughout the region. Events that would book these venues are too small for our downtown convention center, marketed as America’s Center. There are events that have been held here that have outgrown our current facilities, they’ve moved on to larger venues.

The meeting/convention market, like many others, is shrinking. Even big shows are having to change.

The Detroit auto show is moving from its traditional slot in January to June, seeking to reinvent itself after many automakers decamped for the week-earlier Consumer Electronics Show or lost interest in auto shows altogether.

The shift will take place in 2020. That means 2019’s show will be the last one in January.

The overhauled event aims to create a festival-like air with vehicle debuts, concerts, splashy displays and food trucks stretching along Detroit’s riverfront and into the city’s downtown when it begins June 8, 2020. (USA Today)

Every year my husband and I attend the annual Chicago Auto Show, held at the largest US convention center, McCormack Place — in 2020 we hope to check out the show in Detroit. I’ve been through Detroit only once — returning to St. Louis from Toronto on a bus in 2006.  I have many areas of interest in Detroit, including middle eastern food highlighted by Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef Marcus Samuelsson the first episode of No Passport Required on PBS. Food, architecture, etc is often why I want to visit other regions.

Those who host the big events have many choices already, with more regions spending millions annually to try to get their event to their newly built or expanded facility. It’s a buyer’s market.

The recent non-scientific Sunday Poll was deliberately used the word ‘visitors’ instead of ‘conventioneers.’

Q: Agree or disagree: We need to invest $175 million in our convention center to be able to attract visitors to the St. Louis region.

  • Strongly agree: 11 [34.38%]
  • Agree: 4: [12.5%]
  • Somewhat agree: 4 [12.5%]
  • Neither agree or disagree: 3 [9.38%]
  • Somewhat disagree: 2 [6.25%]
  • Disagree: 3 [9.38%]
  • Strongly disagree: 4 [12.5%]
  • Unsure/No Answer: 1 [3.13%]

Nearly 60% agreed, but I disagree. If our goal is to attract the shrinking convention business we need to spend a lot to do so.  However, if our goal is to attract visitors we still need to spend a lot — but in different ways.  Besides further blocking off the Near Northside from downtown, expanding the existing facility is wasting money that could, potentially, have a much greater impact if spent elsewhere. The city & county each contribute $6 million annually in hotel taxes. The current bonds will be paid off in a few years.

Now is the time to rethink our strategy for getting people to the region — visitors spend money and it takes money to get them here. I have no problem spending money on attracting visitors to our region, I just question spending ALL on chasing conventions being chased by every other region in the country. Maybe the focus shifts from conventions to culture (food, music, etc.)? Maybe I’m just pissed that 9th Street will also be closed now that I’m planning to move North of the already massive complex. Maybe it’s just upsetting one group has been working on getting rail transit on 9th/10th without knowing another was planning to close 9th.

If only we could turn our fragmentation into an attraction.

— Steve Patterson

 

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