Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 1:20 PM on Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Alaska's convention business on the rebound

By Jonathan Grass
Morris News Service - Alaska

Conventions bring in a lot of money to Alaska's communities, and the opportunities are growing after a slowdown of nationwide travel in recent years.

Visit Anchorage has hit about $98 million to $100 million per year in meetings held, and Julie Dodds, director of convention sales for Visit Anchorage, said this year's sales goal is $110 million in future bookings for Anchorage.

There was a $99 million estimated impact from conventions in 2011.

National and international conventions are often booked years in advance. Sometimes it's two years but can be as many as five years in advance for larger conventions.

"So what we're seeing now is the result of what we've been doing for the last four years," said Dodds.

For example, Ducks Unlimited is planning a convention in 2016 with 1,200 delegates. The estimated economic impact of this booking is $1.6 million.

Three Anchorage bookings for 2013, the American Society of Engineers, Cryogenic Engineering Conference & International Cryogenic Materials Conference, and International Society of Offshore and Polar Engineers, will provide an estimated $2.5 million impact.

Dodds said the strong number of conventions in town this year speaks well of Alaska's economy because these were booked in 2008 and 2009 when the economic downturn took its toll on travel everywhere.

"We're feeling very good. We feel like we've made it through the slump of the Lower 48 and are building our convention season back up to the amount of visitors we had prior to 2009," she said.

Dodds said they can still look back to determine trends through bed tax collection. She said the city's bed taxes after 2008 dropped by about $5 million and that was a direct response to the recession. She said it has gradually increased since 2009 and it was a little more than $21 million in 2011, just less than the record amount in 2008.

Some major bookings made several years ago taking place in September include the Alliance of Hazardous Materials Professionals, American Avalanche Association and Intelligent Transportation Systems. These three will have a combined 2,000 delegates and an economic impact of $2.6 million.

"We're feeling very pleased about the groups that are coming this year and we're feeling very optimistic about our sales for the future years," said Dodds.

Dodds said in-state meetings have a very different economic impact than out-of-state ones. She said Alaskans tend to use their time in Anchorage to visit stores they normally can't. National and international visitors tend to go for Alaskan souvenirs and other visitor draws.

"An international delegate spends more money than a state delegate does," she said.

Dodds said state meetings still make up about 60 percent of the business.

She said the Dena'ina Center, which opened in 2008, rounds out Anchorage's convention district and has meant a lot in selling to outside groups.

Visit Anchorage helps manage the Egan Center and Dena'ina Center. Dodds said the larger conventions use these sites while smaller ones use the larger area hotels. She said 300 people can easily fit into one of the downtown hotels.

Dena'ina also allows bigger conventions like the Alaska Federation of Natives, which Dodds said has outgrown the Egan Center. AFN can bring in an estimated 3,500 delegates. AFN decides year by year where to hold its convention. It was in Anchorage last year and will return this year.


Like Anchorage, Fairbanks hotels host meeting spaces and the University of Alaska Fairbanks generally hosts one big meeting a year. Such meetings often use multiple hotels to provide accommodations. For instance, UAF has just hosted the International Congress on Circumpolar Health with about 600 attendees.

Conventions must rely on these options because Fairbanks doesn't have a convention center.

The Outdoor Writers Association of America will meet at Chena Hot Springs in September for its first-ever Alaskan meeting.

Helen Renfrew, director of meetings and conventions for the Fairbanks Conventions and Visitors Bureau, said there are a number of out-of-state delegates visiting the city each year. She said the vast majority of these are brought to town by a Fairbanks meeting ambassador. This is someone who lives locally and invites his or her organization to Fairbanks.

"We rely on them to provide the outreach to national and regional organizations," Renfrew said.

The majority of Fairbanks conventions still come from within the state. Renfrew said they try to stay on a rotational schedule to accommodate the larger of these, such as the Travel Industry Association and Alaska Municipal League. There also are the bar and library associations.

There are usually one or two international meetings per year, which are mostly based at UAF. The Arctic Winter Games also will be in Fairbanks in 2014. This will be the first return to the city since the 1980s.

"We're also working with a multitude of entities and companies in the North Pole area, and they have just won a bid to host the International Federation of Sleddog Sports World Championships in 2013," Renfrew said.

Renfrew said everything took a dive in 2008 and 2009 and meetings slowed down with the economic crisis but bookings are recovering.

Renfrew said summer meetings are the "bread and butter" for the Fairbanks Conventions and Visitors Bureau but they try to encourage year-round visitors.

"Meetings encompass a key component in the months that aren't squarely in the middle of summer," she said.

Around the state

Smaller venues keep busy with meetings too. Nome has had its Mini Convention Center for years and created the Convention & Meetings Division of the Nome Chamber of Commerce.

Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Barb Nickels said the division oversaw 38 conventions during its first full year in 2011. A sample of these delegates includes Wells Fargo, Alaska Airlines, People's Council for Marine Mammals and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Nickels said the new division will help tackle the issue of logistical problems and staffing shortages that often lead certain events to bigger cities like Anchorage and Fairbanks. She said hosting meetings in Nome will allow regional community members to participate in training they wouldn't be able to get if they were held in other cities.

Ketchikan has its own meeting space in the form of the Ted Ferry Civic Center. Facility Manager Liz Jones said the center has stayed busy.

Jones has noticed a trend in recent years in which bookings are happening closer to events, which is the opposite in larger venues like Anchorage. She said even conventions are booking less than eight months out when it used to be 12 to 15 months for conventions of the same size.

Jones assumes it's related to budgetary issues because companies may not know too far in advance if they'll have any events.

The Ted Ferry Civic Center held 154 events in 2010 and 132 events in 2011. There are 151 booked events so far this year.

"But that changes every day," Jones said.

Like many convention centers, Ted Ferry runs the gamut in events. This has included the Alaska Municipal League, Alaska Forest Association, the University of Alaska Board of Regents and U.S. Coast Guard. The Intertribal Deaf Council of Oregon also has been there.

Next year it will host the Rotary District 5010 annual convention.

Steven Pfister, manager of Centennial Hall in Juneau, said that center had about 350 events in fiscal year 2012.

Jonathan Grass is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at jonathan.grass@alaskajournal.com.