The economic impact of conventions booked by the area's main tourism entity continues to erode, a sign officials said that Buffalo is losing market share to other cities that have recently modernized or built new meeting facilities.
Events booked by the Greater Buffalo Convention & Visitors Bureau in the first eight months of the year will pump an estimated $35.9 million into the economy, a 46 percent decline over the impact of bookings in a similar period last year.
New figures released last week indicate that the 136 confirmed conventions that have been booked since January and will be held over the next few years will attract 64,576 delegates, a 17 percent decline compared with last year's bookings. Hotel usage by visiting delegates will be 20 percent lower and the projected economic impact will drop by nearly $31 million.
"We're losing many of the larger groups to cities like Milwaukee and Columbus," said CVB President Richard Geiger. "We're losing market share because we haven't done anything to our facility."
Karen Miranda, the CVB's vice president of convention sales and services, said staffers are working on some good leads and she is hopeful that September will be a stronger month for the bureau.
"We think this gap can be narrowed as we work to book some larger groups," Ms. Miranda said.
The CVB has signed contracts with 10 more groups than it did in the first eight months of 1998, when the number of definite bookings stood at 126. But the groups have been significantly smaller, with 40 percent of the bookings signed last month involving events that will have fewer than 100 attendees.
Twelve of the 17 meetings that were booked last month will attract fewer than 500 delegates and only three will attract more than 1,000. The largest booking involves a two-day conference that will be staged next
month by the Miles Ahead Buffalo Youth Crusade and will involve 11,000 people. However, the event will utilize only 45 hotel rooms.
It should be noted that some local hotels book their own events, including the Adam's Mark, which recently added more than 60,000 square feet of new meeting space in an $18 million renovation. The waterfront hotel has landed a number of large events, but not nearly enough to offset the dramatic drop at the CVB.
Ironically, the new CVB figures were released in the same week that saw the Buffalo Convention Center host the largest event in its 21-year history. About 7,000 distributors of therapeutic body magnets converged on the region this past weekend as Team Diamond hosted a quarterly conference. Team Diamond is the training arm of Nikken Inc., a multibillion-dollar Japanese company that sells a variety of health products.
Local officials said the success in landing an event that pumped more than $5 million into the economy proves that the region has what it takes to host a mega-meeting.
But last month, 25 groups considering Buffalo for their conventions selected other regions. Interviews with three out-of-town meeting planners shed light on some of the obstacles that are preventing Buffalo from landing large events.
Those barriers include some groups' desire to have all event functions and lodging facilities under one roof, a need for more modern meeting facilities and concerns about public safety.
Vicky Baker is a certified meeting professional who works for the National Conference Logistics Center in Oklahoma. The company specializes in helping groups find suitable locations for conventions. It recently considered Buffalo for a meeting that is being sponsored next fall by the U.S. Department of Education. Organizers ultimately selected Washington D.C., for a conference that will attract 1,500 delegates.
Ms. Baker said one obvious factor in Washington's favor is that many of the meeting participants live near the nation's capitol and staging it there would reduce travel and lodging costs.
But she also noted that organizers were successful in finding a hotel in Washington that was large enough to accommodate all guests and conference functions under one roof.
"From a logistical standpoint, it's more difficult to have your delegates spread out in three or four hotels," Ms. Baker said.
She added that Buffalo officials are smart to push ahead with plans to build a new $124.5 million convention center, noting that the existing 21-year-old facility does not offer many key amenities. For example, she noted that the center's main exhibit hall lacks a separate foyer, a layout that is essential to minimizing disruptions as people enter and exit events.
But Ms. Baker said she enjoyed her stay in Buffalo during a recent site inspection and thinks the region has a lot to offer. She said she will consider Buffalo as a site for future meetings.
"It's a beautiful city. I especially loved the trolley that goes down your Theater District," she said.
Convention and tourism experts have expressed concern that some groups may not even consider Buffalo as a meeting site in the next few years, opting to wait until a new center is built. They said it is common to see a decline in bookings as cities prepare to expand their facilities or build new ones.
Convention Center Director Melvin P. Florczak said another major obstacle to attracting large events is a shortage of convention-class hotel rooms downtown.
"We have to attract another hotel. We need a facility with 500 to 600 rooms and it needs to be right next to the new convention center," Florczak said.
The New York State Magistrates' Association/New York State Clerks Association held conventions in Buffalo in 1997 and 1998. President Edwin B. Winkworth said even though he "thoroughly enjoyed" his stay, participation plummeted by almost half, to 450 delegates.
"The numbers dropped to the lowest point in 10 years," said Winkworth. "We would be out of the convention business if we continued to go to Buffalo."
The region lost out to Syracuse for a convention that is expected to attract 600 delegates in 2001. But Winkworth said the most highly attended events have been held in "country club atmospheres" in Lake Placid and some downstate venues. He said urban settings have not been popular among members.
"We held a convention in Rochester and one person got tackled and mugged. Do you know how fast that story gets around? City environments scare the heck out of some people," Winkworth said.
But many organizations that hold events that attract 1,000 or more delegates often seek urban settings that offer an array of transportation, entertainment and retail options. The Future Business Leaders of America, a Virginia-based organization with 250,000 members nationally, has held regional conferences in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee in recent years. The group recently ruled out Buffalo as a site for a conference next fall, an event that will attract 1,400 participants.
Communications Director Betty Penzer declined to comment on the specific reasons that prompted the group to choose an unspecified location for the event. But she noted that many organizations tend to stage conferences in areas where they have large concentrations of members. Future Business Leaders of America has its heaviest concentration of members in southern, eastern, and central states.
"It's not an issue of what's wrong with Buffalo," she said. "Often, the ultimate choice is a function of where your members are located."
The New York State Council for Exceptional Children said hotel rates were too high and chose another site for a convention in October of 2000. A spokesperson for the council could not be reached to comment on what city was ultimately selected.
Two groups that were attempting to hold events next month said local facilities were unavailable on their preferred dates.
Geiger said that with the recent expansion at the Adam's Mark and a $2.8 million modernization at the Hyatt Regency, he thinks the region will enjoy strong bookings in the coming year. But Geiger and others remain convinced that the region's long-term ability to compete with comparable cities for convention business hinges on building a new meeting facility. The county has already committed $33 million to the project and backers are hoping the state will come up with $90 million.
Ms. Baker, who books conventions for various groups across the country, agreed that a new facility will attract more business.
"You definitely need a new convention center," she said. "You need a larger venue with a spacious lobby area and other modern features."