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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Center bookings a tough sell

By Kelly Yamanouchi
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Hawai'i Convention Center will play host to 37 out-of-state events this year, and only 24 events are booked for 2004. SMG, the company that manages the center, cited the Iraq war and SARS as the reasons for the drop in events.

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Hawai'i Convention Center sales agents have been busy filling the state facility this year, but they have been less successful convincing meeting planners to choose Hawai'i for events in future years.

Hawai'i will play host to 37 events from out of state at the convention center this year, but only 24 are scheduled for next year, 18 for 2005 and 15 for 2006.

Philadelphia-based SMG, which manages the center and took over marketing of the center in January from the Hawai'i Visitors and Convention Bureau, started out 2003 with only 22 events booked in the center for the year and then managed to add another 15.

Much of the new business has come from Japanese groups.

But the focus on attracting business this year may have come at the sacrifice of longer-term bookings.

"For future years we certainly have some challenges ahead of us," said Frank Haas, marketing director of the Hawai'i Tourism Authority, which awarded the marketing and management contract to SMG.

In December 2002, there were a total of 81 events booked at the convention center for 2004 to 2012. As of June 2003, there were 82.

According to SMG, meeting planners are hesitant to book events citing reasons like the Iraq war and spread of SARS, and are cancelling their reservations if insufficient numbers of delegates are signing up to attend. The situation is also making competing cities more aggressive.

"One thing like Sept. 11 can throw everything for a loop," said Jon Conching, Hilton's regional vice president for sales in Hawai'i.

"Now that the war's been over two or three months or so things are starting to get normal again," Conching said.

SMG has booked several new events in recent months, including an annual convention of Unicity Networks in June 2004, an American Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation meeting in 2006 and an American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry event in 2009.

But others are in jeopardy and are likely to be cancelled, including a meeting of military comptrollers in 2005 that the Department of Defense did not support because of the location, and a meeting of the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology in 2007. Planners were concerned about low attendance.

Some in the tourism industry have called attention to slow convention bookings following the transition from HVCB to SMG in marketing the center. HVCB is set to lose even more of its tourism marketing contract Jan. 1 when it will no longer promote Hawai'i in international markets.

"I'm very concerned with change," said Keith Vieira, senior vice president of Starwood Hotels & Resorts. He said a slowdown in convention bookings since the start of the year means "a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue."

SMG did not return a call for comment.

Reach Kelly Yamanouchi at 535-2470, or at kyamanouchi@honoluluadvertiser.com.