State's convention centers get late-year boost

Posted: Thursday, January 09, 2003

Alaska convention and visitors centers had a busy December in spite of -- or perhaps because of -- a stagnant year for tourism.

"What we're probably seeing is an increase in businesses trying to attract that convention tourism," said Joe Mehrkens, an economist with the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

While the department does not track the economic effects conferences have on the state, Mehrkens suggested that busy fourth-quarter conventions could be a response to a slow season for out-of-state tourism.

"We have heard that people are willing to do whatever it takes to get that new business," he said.

Conventions and meetings accounted for a record-setting December in Anchorage, according to Bruce Bustamonte, the president and chief executive of the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau. The city projected that meetings brought in some $2.5 million in revenues for the month, a 136 percent increase over December 2001, when meetings and conventions accounted for $1.1 million.

Bustamonte said several of the 17 meetings that came to Anchorage last month were preexisting statewide meetings that happened to rotate into the city. One event was regional and two, both held by Fairfax, Va.-based Falmouth Institute, were national.

Bustamonte said Anchorage has appeal all over the nation because of its reputation as a hub of both culture and nature.

"Alaska has tremendous drawing potential," he said. "People hear about Alaska as a meeting place and they just light up."

In Kenai and Ketchikan, both smaller but busy communities, local events have overrun the convention centers.

Jay Barrett, the director of communications for the Kenai Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the cultural center has been very busy with similar events. Four art shows held at the center overflowed the two galleries and pushed into a conference room, he said.

About two-thirds of all the conferences hosted by the center are local events, he said, so they don't have a tremendous economic impact.

He said the one-third that come in from other parts of the state or nation, however, can mean big business for the city and borough.

"It's a nice quiet place and it's nice to get out of the big city, sometimes," Barrett said. "We do a lot of events so we stay pretty busy."

Barrett said national events held in Anchorage have some economic effects on the peninsula. He said convention attendees will occasionally make the trip from the larger city to the smaller one after an event finishes up.

Rhonda Bolling, the facility director of the Ted Ferry Civic Center in Ketchikan, said the center was booked solid in December, with little or no relief in sight.

"We keep expecting it to slow down, but we've been nonstop," Bolling said.

The center is booked almost to capacity for January and there's not a free day in the months of February and March, she said.

"It's a slow economy, so the Civic Center is sure helping," Bolling added. Unfortunately for us, the majority of the December events have been local."

Frank Hall, an office assistant at Juneau's Centennial Hall, said his convention center was "remarkably busy" in December.

"I have an enormous stack of contracts for the next two or three months," he said. "Business is booming."

In Fairbanks, as well, the convention industry has been flourishing, according to Jennifer Jolis, the meetings and conventions manager for that city's convention and visitor's bureau. December brought four events into the Interior town, which, she said, is not bad for a winter month. She added that the outlook for the coming year is even more positive.

"We have been nonstop putting out RFPs (requests for proposals)," she said.

She added that the response from both state and national entities has been encouraging. From January through March, Fairbanks has booked more than two dozen events, which Jolis described as a positive response.

Fairbanks, she said, has been attempting to encourage convention tourism within the state.

"We are trying to become more and more competitive," she said. "We offer really, really good services as a center and a community, but there still is very much a small-town friendliness."

Regan Foster is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce, in Anchorage.

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