Leaders of DSLcon expected their convention in Tampa last week would be a big improvement over their last gathering. At least there would be no blizzards.
In April, a snowstorm hit Denver on the eve of the trade group`s convention, knocking out power, shutting down the airport and blocking the arrival of many participants.
This time, the weather cooperated, but a sour economy, a terrorist-provoked fear of flying and anthrax anxiety decimated attendance. DSLcon, which represents companies that sell high-speed Internet access through digital subscriber lines, closed its four-day gathering at the Tampa Convention Center with 600 attendees and 40 exhibitors—about half the turnout of the show in snow-socked Denver.
The episode typifies the convention business since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. More often than not, the show has been going on but it`s a scaled-down affair.
Paul Catoe, chief executive of the Tampa Bay Convention and Visitors Association, said no major conventions have canceled in the past six weeks. (Major conventions are defined as those that generate at least 2,500 hotel room nights—the number of guests multiplied by the number of nights they stay.) But the big groups on average are arriving with 60 to 70 percent of the attendance they promised. Before Sept. 11, conventions often underbooked the number of hotel rooms they would take.
“It`s obviously a big concern,” Catoe said.
The convention center is between major trade gatherings this week as it prepares for one of its biggest consumer events of the year, the annual Tampa Bay International Auto Show. The next big convention in the wings, the Professional Lawn Care Association of America, so far is sticking with its pledge to take 6,300 room nights between Nov. 9 and 12.
The impact on small meetings and conventions is even more dramatic. A survey by the visitors association showed at least 212 small gatherings in the area were cancelled in the latter part of September, leading to a loss of 20,250 room nights or $1.7-million in room revenue alone.
“And that`s with only about 25 percent of our member hotels responding, so it just gives you a thumbnail of what the picture looked like,” said Norwood Smith, the association`s vice president of sales.
More than 65 percent of the cancelled small meetings were rebooked, though many are waiting until well into 2002 before coming to town.
The convention center feels the impact of fewer guests directly, making less in food and beverage sales, a category it depends on heavily for ancillary revenue.
Clearly, though, the hotels feel the most pain.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, many large hotels temporarily dropped the requirement that convention planners fill at least 90 percent of their reserved block of rooms or pay the difference. Many hotels plan to continue picking up the tab for those unused hotel rooms through November.
After that, things might get interesting. Smith expects a major sticking point as convention planners try to stay off the hook in paying for unused rooms.
With air travel off substantially throughout the country, Florida convention centers are not the only ones hurting.
Mark Bonn, an economist with Florida State University who follows the tourism and convention industry, estimates convention attendance throughout the Southeast is off 25 percent from last year.
Evidence is still anecdotal, but Bonn speculates that Florida may have a rougher time than some other states.
Terrorism concerns aside, Bonn said there may be multiple reasons for convention members to cancel their trip, an observation reinforced by DSLcon`s experience.
Earlier this year, organizers of the Tampa tech show were predicting up to 1,200 members and 80 exhibitors. The economy started chipping away at those plans long before Sept. 11.
After Sept. 11, 15 or 20 additional exhibitors pulled out, event spokeswoman Michelle Metzger said.
Many of the show`s breakout sessions were sparsely attended, some members said. Inside the exhibition hall, several booth operators from companies such as Intel lamented the dismal turnout as the lowest they had ever seen.
Undaunted, Metzger said organizers never considered cancelling the Tampa show even when it became obvious that attendance would be poor.
“It`s an important stand for us to make that we`re not going to be intimidated by this,” she said, sounding a patriotic tone.
“Our economy needs to continue moving.”