I would like to clarify a number of issues raised in the Post-Gazette’s Dec. 15 news article about the performance of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center (“David L. Lawrence Convention Center Isn’t Living Up to Its High Expectations").
The convention center is a major asset to the Pittsburgh region. Attendance and number of events, while important, are not the only measure of a convention center’s success. It is essential to also consider other key performance indicators to accurately assess performance.
The foremost consideration is a center’s overall economic impact and direct spending by groups who use it. Then there are the number of hotel rooms booked, attendees’ ability to spend and the geographic location of visitors (local vs. out-of-towners).
In 2000, the last regular operating year of the old David L. Lawrence Convention Center, events hosted at the center produced $51.1 million in direct spending. Compare this to $118.2 million in 2012.
All told, over the past decade, the convention center has generated more than $1 billion in direct spending in the region. These numbers are not hyperbole. They are conservative numbers calculated by using a national model utilized by industry experts and reported by national media.
The missions of VisitPittsburgh and the David L. Lawrence Convention Center include creating economic impact through overnight visitation. The convention center attracts conventions, which help support local restaurants, attractions and other service-providing and retail businesses.
As an industry rule, convention center space is protected to ensure it is available during the times when conventions typically book a city. Local shows, weddings or meetings do not usually generate the economic impact for our community that a national convention generates. Although residents enjoy local shows, which support commerce for participating vendors, they do not maximize the economic promise of the convention center.
Third-party studies (by PricewaterhouseCoopers) have shown that our convention center’s financial and operational results are better or on par with similar convention centers. Most centers run at a deficit; their mission is to spur spending, which results in local business profitability and critical tax revenue that supports our local economy. This doesn’t necessarily equate to bringing income to the convention center itself.
In addition to serving as a tipping point for Pittsburgh’s environmental transformation, the David L. Lawrence Convention Center is a world-class facility that has helped Pittsburgh secure prestigious events that otherwise never would have come here, such as the G20 summit of world leaders, which alone garnered a conservative $35 million in direct spending.
Our hospitality community has done an excellent job managing the correct mix of business to provide the best return on investment. Last year, more than 12 percent of the occupied hotel rooms Downtown were directly attributed to events at the convention center. And for four years, Pittsburgh has been able to sell the highest percentage of hotel rooms at the highest price when compared to competing cities.
The meetings and conventions industry is highly competitive. As other destinations open mega-hotels attached to their convention centers (as meeting planners demand), it will be increasingly difficult to attract new business to Pittsburgh. Consider: When the National Society of Black Engineers national convention was held here in 2012, the group used 12 hotels. When the society goes to its 2014 national convention in Nashville, one hotel can accommodate the entire group.
We should be looking to support the tourism and travel industry — the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, in particular — rather than discredit it.
Craig Davis is president and CEO of VisitPittsburgh.