Guest Column

For San Antonio, 2002 seemed to be a great convention year

For San Antonio, 2002 seemed to be a great convention year. Other cities may have been suffering in the aftermath of the recession, dot-com bust, and 9/11, but San Antonio, with its newly expanded convention center, was setting a record.

The headline of the July 30, 2002, Express-News touted “Convention Center Payoff” and heralded the arrival of a major computer-graphics convention, one that could only be accommodated with the bigger and better center. And convention business was so good in 2002 that a few months later, in February 2003, San Antonio convention bureau officials could longingly look back on “2002’s stellar convention year,” according to the daily.

One of the events that made such a boom year was that computer-graphics meeting, SIGGRAPH, which was on the city’s books with 30,000 anticipated attendees. As late as the end of 2004, the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau could report to the city council that SIGGRAPH was 2002’s largest convention at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.

Except that the SIGGRAPH meeting didn’t really have 30,000 attendees.

The actual attendance was just 17,200.

It seems that for years the CVB and city staff neatly reported the number of attendees “booked” for an event years before it occurred rather than the number of people who actually came to San Antonio. The city reported the same room numbers for an event for years afterwards, rather than the number of hotel-room nights (that’s one hotel room occupied for one night) that wereactually used.

Year after year, there were grand announcements of big new conventions that were supposed to be coming to San Antonio five or 10 years in the future, bringing tens of thousands of attendees booked for tens of thousand room nights.

Except that they often didn’t turn up. And if they didn’t turn up, they didn’t rent hotel rooms.

Finally, earlier this year, a little footnote appeared in the City’s official convention-business reports. The room-night totals from 2002 are now based on “completion reports where available.” That means that now we can begin to talk about how many room nights are reportedly used, not what a planner anticipated years in advance. (Of course, that footnote doesn’t say how many events provide “completion reports,” or when and why they are available.)

Guess what happened?

Room nights simply disappeared into the mist.

For 2002, the city was supposed to have hosted some 714 conventions that filled a total of 826,566 room nights. Now that we have discovered “completion reports,” the room-night total for 2002 is decidedly smaller — just 703,200.

That’s more than 120,000 room nights that never happened.

For 2003, there were supposed to be a total of 709,081. After checking the “completion reports,” that number shrunk to 615,576. And 2004 dropped as well, from 711,568 room nights to just 621,592 for 801 conventions.

These totals include hundreds of very small meetings, the majority of which never use the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, and which probably don’t file “completion reports.” For the big “citywide” meetings that use 1,500 or more hotel rooms on their busiest nights, the drop in room-night use is dramatic.

The “citywide” event total for 2002 was supposed to be 38, with a total of 436,189 room nights. As the actual business shrunk with the new completion reports, the total fell to 30 events for a total of 300,806 nights — a drop of about 31 percent. The citywide total for 2005 was supposed to be 32 conventions with almost 391,000 room nights. It turned out to be 26 events with 296,704 nights.

As City-Hall talk will inevitably turn to the need for an even bigger convention center, we really should know what our last investment of more than $180 million actually brought us. A formal audit that could verify the actual performance of the CVB, and what it is yielding for the tax dollars we pour into it would be a big help, and is a necessary starting point.

But when you read a banner headline on the front page of the Express-News like the one that ran on October 11, touting the “largest convention in San Antonio’s history,” the arrival of 100,000 Seventh Day Adventists set for July 2015, think about those “completion reports.” And don’t be surprised if there is a little shrinkage. Maybe even a lot.


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