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Convention Center recovering from dip in attendees

After a relatively sharp dip in out-of-town foot traffic in 2013, the San Diego Convention Center has bounced back a bit, but the overall number of tourists is still at one of its lowest points since before the recession began, according to the latest data available from the center and the San Diego Tourism Marketing District.

By the time fiscal 2014 ends on June 30, the center will have drawn an estimated 538,000 conventioneers from outside the city, which is 1 percent higher than 2013 but still 9 percent lower than 2012.

Fiscals 2013 and 2014 both rank as the worst for out-of-town attendance since before the beginning of the Great Recession, when convention traffic peaked at close to 650,000.

Part of the drop is because of cyclical fluctuations in convention scheduling, Convention Center spokesman Steve Johnson said.

"Some shows, such as Comic-Con and ESRI (a much smaller convention focusing on geographic mapping software) come every year," Johnson said. "Other shows rotate, so they might come here one year and then go to other cities for two or three years and then come back."

Skip Hull, vice president with the market analysis firm CIC Research, said that sometimes major conventions rotate on roughly the same schedule, creating huge peaks and valleys for their hosts.

The effect of the rotations can be seen in the varying sizes of recent conventions in San Diego County.

Over the past several years, the Convention Center's business has been dominated by Comi-Con, which steadily draws 125,000 to 130,000 local and out-of-town visitors each July.

In 2011, the second- and third-biggest conventions, targeting neuroscientists and orthopedic surgeons, drew more than 30,000 attendees each. (The convention center specializes in medical conventions, partly because doctors tend to spend more than the average visitor.)

In 2012, the second- and third-biggest conventions, focusing on hematology and digestive diseases, each drew more than 20,000 visitors.

But in 2013 and 2014, no convention other than Comic-Con drew more than 18,000 attendees.

Hull said the lingering sting of the recession may be having an effect on convention traffic.

"Conventions usually buy their space years in advance, so that when you go into an economic downturn, you don't immediately feel the effects, but you might feel them several years later," Hull said. "That's just the nature of the beast."

The slowdown at the convention center has put a damper on the San Diego tourism industry as a whole.

Last year, San Diego had relatively anemic growth in overall hotel room nights with demand rising 2.4 percent, compared with growth rates of 2.9 percent in Anaheim and 3.4 percent in San Francisco.

Hoteliers last year pegged much of the blame on Mayor Bob Filner's decision last year to stop funds from flowing into the San Diego Tourism Authority from fees assessed to local hotels, which prevented the city from promoting itself through advertising.

Joe Terzi, director of the authority, said that last summer the city aired $4 million in advertising, with $2 million coming from the agency's coffers and $2 million from SeaWorld, compared with the $14 million it normally would have used.

"Because we got the money restored after Filner left office, we were able to air $12.5 million in advertising between February and June this year -- the most we've ever spent during a six-month period of time – and we'll spend $3 million more before the year is out," Terzi said.

But if the convention center -- which was not affected by Filner's action -- had generated as much traffic as it usually does, San Diego's tourism growth rate would have been much closer to its peers.

If the dip in convention business were taken out of the equation, the number of overall hotel nights would have grown by an additional 0.4 percent, putting the city's growth rate to 2.8 percent, or around the same level as Anaheim, based on data from the Tourism Authority.

Susan Bruinzeel, senior director of planning and research at the Tourism Authority, cautions that although those numbers may be "a good indicator" of tourism trends, they only reflect the "large upscale chain properties," which represent about 40 percent of the local market.

The chart shows the number of conventions held annually at the San Diego Convention Center. In the last 10 years, the highest number of conventions was 75 in 2013 and the lowest was 47 in 2004. An estimated 70 conventions will be held this year. Source: San Diego Tourism Authority | Compiled by Aubrey Anareta

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San Diego Convention Center

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111 West Harbor Dr.
San Diego, CA 92101

San Diego Convention Center Executive(s):

Carol Wallace

  • Chief Executive Officer, President

Tom Mazzocco

  • Chief Operating Officer, Executive Vice President

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