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ACVB: Anchorage ideal for conventions

Posted: Thursday, June 10, 2010

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Despite severe budget cutbacks and a slumping bed tax collection, the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau continues to attract organizations looking for a location for its conventions.

The economic boon to Anchorage attributed to future conventions sold in 2009 reached more than $97 million, representing 102 percent of the ACVB's goal for the year, said Julie Saupe, the bureau's president and CEO. That same year, $98 million in conventions and meetings were held.

This might seem like a significant slump when considered against previous years. In 2008, the bureau sold nearly $100 million worth of conventions. However, the bureau has had to deal with severe budget cuts due to a 21 percent dip in taxes collected on hotel stays in 2009. The bureau no longer has a lobbyist, and its national advertising budget was significantly slashed.

The bed tax, which comes from 12 percent of each room or apartment rental transaction in Anchorage, is split three ways between the AVCB's marketing functions; bond debt and operations of the two convention centers the bureau manages; and the municipality's general fund.

Fewer hotel stays equates to a lesser tax yield, and Alaska's tourism industry has been slammed by the national recession.

Still, the ACVB expects to meet or exceed its goals this year, Saupe said. And even with a lower budget for national advertising, outreach efforts like fams, where groups of event organizers are wined and dined in an effort to show off the city's amenities, are a valuable means of promoting Anchorage, she said.

"The fam program is very effective. The comments we receive are always glowing," she said.

Large conventions and conferences can pump millions of dollars into Anchorage's economy. One example: the Alaska Federation of Natives has opted to make Anchorage the setting for its annual convention in 2011, and the ACVB anticipates an impact of $5.3 million on the municipality's economy thanks to the event.

When asked what makes Anchorage such an attractive place for convention organizers, Saupe said the size of the city is a big plus. Anchorage appears small compared with larger cities like Chicago, but this plays into its unique strengths; locations around the city, such as Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and the downtown area's various restaurants, are all within close proximity to one another.

Wesley Snyder, conference chairman for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Robotics and Automation Society, said Anchorage's natural beauty and convention capacity compelled him to locate the 2010 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation here.

"When asked if I wanted to be the organizer, I said, 'Yeah, but only if it's somewhere interesting,"' he said.

Taking place within both the William A. Egan Civic and Convention Center and the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center downtown, the conference, held May 3-8, played host to an exchange of ideas among nearly 1,500 attendees, half of whom are researchers in the robotics field who brought their papers and their ideas to trade with others.

Snyder vetted a number of other places where nature's splendor could be observed, but locations such as the Grand Canyon in Arizona didn't offer the facilities he needed.

The two convention centers serviced different needs for the gathering. While the Dena'ina Center played host to an awards luncheon and other events where dining capacity was needed, the Egan Center was the perfect place for the robotics exhibits.

The exhibits featured a wild assortment of walking, talking and dancing robots, including machines that could pick up and place objects, and a robot capable of performing Michael Jackson's famous "Thriller" dance on command.

According to a news release from the ACVB, the American Avalanche Association will be hosting 900 delegates in Anchorage in September 2012, and the Avionics Maintenance Conference will host a meeting of 750 delegates in April and May of the same year.

While the Dena'ina Center's wild success has arguably pulled convention traffic away from its sister center at the Egan, Saupe isn't worried; the economic model for the centers involves pooled revenue from both of them.

The centers don't turn a profit on their own; their portion of the bed tax covers the $1 million shortfall each center experiences every year. Still, the centers are a boon to tourism in Anchorage and have well proven their worth, Saupe said.

Before the construction of the Dena'ina Center in 2008, critics were skeptical of the net gain Anchorage would experience when it was done, especially as questions arose as to any possible tax increases to fuel the center.

"It wasn't necessary, but I think it's great to have. I personally think the building has proven its worth many times over," she said.

And with $3 million in upgrades, including sound system upgrades and new carpets, wall coverings and portable walls, the Egan Center is looking to catch up to its younger sibling, Saupe said.

"It's looking great. It's a nice facility for Anchorage," Saupe said.

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Information from: Alaska Journal of Commerce, http://www.alaskajournal.com



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