Wednesday, February 7, 2001
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Posted on: Wednesday, February 7, 2001

Slump could slow Convention Center bookings in Hawai'i

Las Vegas banks on convention space

By Frank Cho
Advertiser Staff Writer

As the convention business grows on the Mainland, major centers are being swamped with demand. At last count, more than 70 cities and other operators were studying plans to build or expand convention centers.

But in relatively small locations like Honolulu, which for years have been overlooked by planners, cities are stepping up in hopes of becoming the top choices of meeting planners.

The Hawaii Convention Center, which opened in 1998 with more than 200,000 square feet of exhibition space, 107,000 square feet of meeting rooms and a 36,000-square-foot ballroom, helped dispel the notion that Hawaii was good only for sun, surf and sand, local tourism officials said.

"There has been a lot of pent-up demand for a facility like ours here," said Joe Davis, convention center general manager.

But with millions of square feet of convention center space coming on the U.S. market over the next few years, and a slowing Mainland economy, filling Hawaii’s $350 million convention center could prove harder than in years past.

The pressure will come from cities like Las Vegas, which is completing a $150 million renovation that will double the size of its already-huge convention center to 3.2 million square feet.

San Diego, where Davis previously was assistant general manager, also is looking at doubling the size of its convention center. San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Memphis, Tenn., and Milwaukee also have expanded their convention centers in the past few years to lure lucrative business travelers who spend more money on average than typical leisure travelers, experts say.

"I think we may find ourselves in that position," Davis said of the increasing competition. "But I don’t sense that pressure right now."

The Hawaii Convention Center can accommodate about 85 to 90 percent of the meetings being planned these days in the high-tech or professional fields, Davis said.

Last year, Hawaii tourism officials expected the center in Honolulu to attract 24 events and 113,000 visitors. It actually booked 31 and brought in 108,000 visitors, according to the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. This year, tourism planners expect 31 bookings, with about 106,000 visitors.

But some analysts fear a slowing Mainland economy could hurt demand this year. Since Jan. 1, the Hawaii center has booked only 20 future events, representing about 47,050 visitors.

The Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, which handles marketing for the convention center, could not be reached for comment last night.

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