Inquirer: A road trip to pitch the Convention Center

Inquirer: A road trip to pitch the Convention Center

WASHINGTON – An early March sunset haloed the White House, the Jefferson Memorial, and the Washington Monument, but Jack Ferguson never got to see that tourist-postcard scene from atop the Hays-Adams Hotel.

Instead, he was in Washington, where many U.S. trade groups have headquarters, to sell Philadelphia – the city’s soon-to-be-expanded Convention Center, to be precise. And he was working the crowd at breakneck speed.

“First, we came here to see you. Second, we came to get your business,” said Ferguson, executive vice president of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. Then he began narrating a virtual video tour of the grand new space projected onto a giant screen.

Being wooed under a white rooftop tent were the American Occupational Therapy Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the American Public Transportation Association – in all, 90 organizations invited to the first of several missions this year to drum up business for the center’s $786 million expansion.

With each group came the potential for generating millions of dollars in booked exhibit and convention space, hotel rooms, restaurant receipts, and revenue for such venues as the African American Museum and the National Constitution Center – not to mention adding to the current 58,000 jobs in the city’s hospitality industry.

Selling more than 1 million square feet of space is daunting in normal times, but in a recession you have to pull out all the stops, said Ferguson, whose agency has an office in Washington.

So between March 2 and 4, he made 5,800 phone calls while traversing the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, set up 80 meetings in person, and had at least four appointments a day.

In addition, six-person teams – representing a mix from the city’s hotels, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority – made sales calls all over Washington, northern Virginia, and Maryland, he said. All told, the three-day trip generated 25 requests for proposals.

When it makes its expected debut next March – construction is about 75 percent complete now – the enlarged Convention Center will house what is being billed as the largest ballroom on the East Coast. It will be the 14th-largest convention center in the United States, bigger than even New York’s.

More than $2 billion in business already has been booked for 2011 and beyond.

Ferguson will assume the top job at the Convention and Visitors Bureau in January, shortly before the official unveiling. The bigger, bolder Convention Center is his baby.

But he traveled to Washington not so much to generate new business as to steal it from cities such as Boston and San Diego, often mentioned in the same breath as Philadelphia when big-time gatherings are planned.

Even smaller cities are a threat these days, he said: “Planners who traditionally book first-tiered cities like Philadelphia, Boston, and D.C. are also looking at Pittsburgh, Charlotte, and Hartford, Conn., if the destination can meet their needs.”

Meetings and conventions expenditures declined 14.6 percent last year compared with 2008, according to the U.S. Travel Association, and generated 8.7 percent less in tax revenue as companies, associations, and exhibitors cut back.

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