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Boston is building it, but will they come?
While some believe the new Boston Convention & Exhibition Center will
Successfully attract visitors, others doubt the project's sensibility and chances for prosperity
For Boston’s taxi drivers, the most profitable week of the year during the 1990s did not come in the cold of winter when many shun walking outside. It came in the dog days of summer when the Herculean Macworld convention came to town.
Affluent, high-tech professionals with liberal expense accounts filled hotels, airports, restaurants, bars and retail shops, from Newbury Street to Faneull Hall, energizing the bank accounts of waiters, bellhops, bartenders and shop owners.
It was an annual citywide mini-goldrush critical to the economic vitality of the city, including many of its lower-income employees.
Although Boston still attracts other large conventions, Macworld no longer comes to town.
It transferred to the Big Apple— in part due to insufficient convention space to accommodate this huge trade show at the Hynes Convention Center and other local venues.
For years, city and state officials of every stripe said the key to attracting and keeping larger conventions like Macworld is to build a larger convention hall, which is now under construction near the entrance to the Ted Williams tunnel in South Boston.
But will the $800 million Boston Convention & Exhibition Center scheduled to open in 2004 attract enough conventions to warrant its construction?
ACCORDING TO SOME, the answer is no. They believe the center should not be built.
“We are threatening to build a convention center with no demand,” said Charles Chieppo, spokesman for Boston’s Pioneer Institute, a market-orientated public policy think tank.
“The market for convention hall space is disappearing at the same time its supply is exploding.”
Because of advances in technology such as webcasting and teleconferencing, businesses are now sending fewer employees to trade shows, which are “incredibly expensive,” Chieppo said.
“Unless you think technology will go away, this will not change. We are investing in the typewriter industry.”
Chieppo says experts predicted a few years ago there would be about 140 million trade-show attendees nationwide in 2001, but because of advances in technology, now only 74 million are expected.
JIM ROONEY, director of development for the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, disagrees with the contention that new technologies will make the BCEC obsolete.
“That is a trend that has not borne itself out,” he said. “It is a fallacy and I do not buy it. People like to do business face-to-face, eye-to-eye, and kick the tires,” Rooney said.
Rooney is not alone in that assessment.
Patrick Moscaritolo, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau — a strong supporter of the new convention center — said despite the current sluggish economy, six Boston conventions this past winter and 14 last year set attendance records.
“It is not a dying industry,” Moscaritolo said.
BUT CHIEPPO ALSO SAID the BCEC is a waste of money because in America too many convention centers have been built recently without enough business to support them.
“In 1989, there were three convention centers with at least 500,000 square feet in the United States about the size of the new BCECJ, and in 1998, there were 23 such centers. And now there are 94 venues being either built or expanded.”
Moscaritolo acknowledged that nationwide, there are not enough trade shows to support every convention center.
But he said that will have a limited effect on the BCEC because Boston generally competes with just a few cities, not the entire country, and only for a few types of shows.
“In the pond we fish in, we match up perfectly. The cities we mostly compete with are Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Charlotte and Atlanta,” said Moscaritolo.
“There are five conventions that have outgrown us that could perhaps be lured back,” he added.
The Hynes Convention Center attracts about 35 shows a year.
Moscaritolo added that since greater Boston is a mecca for technology, health care and education, trade shows within these industries have a strong incentive to come here.
He also said conventions will be drawn to Boston because it is a popular tourist destination.
AGAIN, The PIONEER Institute disagrees.
Boston is a good tourist destination, but not a good convention destination, said Chieppo.
To be chosen as a primary convention city, Boston would need year-round warm weather, because snowstorms can cause airline delays, which could disrupt winter trade shows.
The city also would need some sort of resort similar to Disney World or Las Vegas to attract more conventions, Chieppo said.
Moscaritolo said Boston has plenty of attractions for conventioneers, including its many historic sites, the North End and universities, of which conventiongoers may be alumni.
Boston would also need to have more, and less expensive, hotels to attract enough conventions to make the BCEC worthwhile, said Chieppo.
City hotels cost twice the national average.
In 1996, the average daily room rate in Boston was $122.50 and nationally it was $71.25, according to Smith Travel Research and Pinnacle Advisory Group.
Although OFFICIALS ARE trying to attract hotel construction to the city’s Seaport district, the financing of only one appears close to-completion.
“The fact that hotels are not building in the Seaport District is the clearest indication the financial community believes the BCEC will not work,” Chieppo said.
Another factor that may indicate difficulties for the center is that despite millions of dollars spent in advertising and marketing, the BCEC has yet to firmly book a single convention.
Typically, such bookings are done years in advance. About 17 groups have shown significant interest.
“Would you sign a contract with a convention center that is not built yet?” Moscaritolo asked.
“Until we can show what it is going to look like, until we can at least get the steel in the ground this summer and show the final design plans, then it not being built yet is a hindrance to booking shows,” he said.
It will be about 10 years before the center is fully booked, he said, adding, “I am absolutely optimistic.”
ALL STORIES BY JOHN PIKE
Boston’s Seaport district area to be transformed
The Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, scheduled to open in 2004 at the intersection of D and Summer streets in South Boston, is just one part of a grand plan to significantly transform the area
stretching from Atlantic Avenue to the Black Falcon terminal.
With Big Dig construction sites and parking lots now occupying some of the area, the new Seaport district may feature a few more hotels, office space, shops, parks and housing at Fan Pier next to the new courthouse.
“The area is going to be transformed from a working seaport to a multi-use district,” said Patrick Moscaritolo, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The area will become a 24-hour neighborhood where people live, which is the kind of place that convention delegates enjoy, which should spur the success of the BCEC, said Moscaritolo.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is constructing a new subway line, called the Silver line, which will run from South Station and service the courthouse, World Trade Center, BCEC and individual terminals at Logan airport.
Studies said to promise
what planners want to hear
State and local government
agencies across the country are building too many convention centers while chasing too few
conventions, said Charles Chieppo, spokesman for Boston’s Pioneer Institute, a market-oriented public policy think tank.
And Chieppo thinks he knows the reason why.
The decision for a government agency to build a convention center “is a politically unstoppable situation,” Chieppo said. Any proposed convention center is a “free subsidy to the hospitality and tourism industries, and big labor that wants them to build it.”
All the studies that are commissioned to determine whether a center should be built “always say build it. The people who write the studies say what the entity commissioning it wants them to say. And Boston has followed the pattern of other cities.”
“There are very powerful political forces that are working on behalf of what is perceived as their political interest,” said Chieppo.
Charles Johnson of Johnson Consulting in Chicago, said Chieppo. who was part of the 1997 study to determine if the Boston convention center should be built, predicted in another study that a new Charlotte, N. C., convention center would generate 528,000 hotel-room-nights annually.
It ended up generating only
PROMISED ECONOMIC BENEFITS OF BOEC
Each out-of-town conventioneer is expected to spend on average:
·$188 on hotel rooms and
· $62 on food and beverages. $38 in retail stores.
·$53 in other expenses.
·The new convention center is expected to bring an additional $646 million annually into the state.
Boston’s Seaport district area to be transformed