Space Available: The Realities of Convention Centers as Economic Development Strategy

To cities the lure of the convention business has long been the prospect of visitors emptying their wallets on meals, lodging, and entertainment, helping to rejuvenate ailing downtowns.

However, an examination of the convention business and city and state spending on host venues finds that:

  • The overall convention marketplace is declining in a manner that suggests that a recovery or turnaround is unlikely to yield much increased business for any given community, contrary to repeated industry projections. Moreover this decline began prior to the disruptions of 9-11 and is exacerbated by advances in communications technology. Currently, overall attendance at the 200 largest tradeshow events languishes at 1993 levels.

  • Nonetheless, localities, sometimes with state assistance, have continued a type of arms race with competing cities to host these events, investing massive amounts of capital in new convention center construction and expansion of existing facilities. Over the past decade alone, public capital spending on convention centers has doubled to $2.4 billion annually, increasing convention space by over 50 percent since 1990. Nationwide, 44 new or expanded convention centers are now in planning or construction.

  • Faced with increased competition, many cities spend more money on additional convention amenities, like publicly-financed hotels to serve as convention "headquarters." Another competitive response has been to offer deep discounts to tradeshow groups. Despite dedicated taxes to pay off the public bonds issued to build convention centers, many—including Washington, D.C and St. Louis—operate at a loss.

This analysis should give local leaders pause as they consider calls for ever more public investment into the convention business, while weighing simultaneously where else scarce public funds could be spent to boost the urban economy.