City's lack of glitz now a selling point for conventions

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VisitPittsburgh is now marketing the city as a glamorless destination for the post-luxury age.

"Nobody is going to raise their eyebrows when you book your conference in Pittsburgh," said Craig Davis, vice president of sales and marketing for the region's official tourism agency.

"Why risk the possible issue of booking in what would be considered a resorty type of destination when you can get all you need in Pittsburgh?"

The thinking goes that if financial institution Wells Fargo had planned its employee rewards trip to Pittsburgh instead of Las Vegas after the federal bailout, no one would have balked.

VisitPittsburgh is hoping for a repeat of 2008, which was a record year for conventions at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. The center hosted 49 conventions, up from 38 in 2007.

Mr. Davis said Pittsburgh is proving to be a popular alternative to larger cities.

"We have a reputation as a destination where people actually show up," he said.

Just last week, by the time the American Physical Society met at the Convention Center, VisitPittsburgh had helped the organization book 13,000 rooms. The original request had been for 8,000 rooms.

"The meetings industry is under siege right now," Mr. Davis said, referring to the notion that companies are spending too much on luxury junkets. "Pittsburgh is in a perfect position to take advantage of that."

On this year's calendar, the hot new convention coming to town is the American Trucking Association's 2009 National Truck Driving Championships and National Step Van Driving Championships in which safety competitions will be held inside the center.

Mr. Davis said the Pittsburgh convention center was a natural for the safety contest since there are no center support pillars and the building has a great ventilation system.

Before the convention was approved, the building had to be inspected by a fire marshal to make sure it can handle the fumes, according to Joe McGrath, chief executive officer of VisitPittsburgh.

Truckers participating in the competition will drive rigs and vans through an obstacle course inside the convention center. In 2005, the building suffered a collapse as a truck drove through the interior. Officials from the visitors bureau said yesterday that was a different part of the building.

The so-called "Super Bowl of Safety," scheduled for Aug. 18 through 22, is expected to draw 2,100 attendees and bring $3.23 million in direct spending to the area.

VisitPittsburgh is anticipating another 2,000 people will spend $2.88 million here in September when the labor organization AFL-CIO holds its Constitutional Convention at the center.

During the organization's annual meeting yesterday, the leadership also released figures showing VisitPittsburgh last year booked 573 meetings and conventions for 2008 and beyond, which will bring anticipated spending of $272 million to the region.

That is up from bookings made in 2007, which were expected to bring in $254 million in spending.

"2008 was a record year," Mr. McGrath said.

"Ninety-two percent of the time there was a function in the David Lawrence Convention Center."

VisitPittsburgh also released its annual report showing total expenses for 2008 at $11.4 million.

Salaries of key officials were not included, but a review of the organization's income tax return for 2007 showed Mr. McGrath was paid $308,000 with a $6,000 expense account.

Ann Belser can be reached at or 412-263-1699.


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