Sunday, May 28, 2006

Watch Out, You Might Get What You're After

Hate to come on like the world-weary voice of experience, but I was a waiter when New Orleans hosted the 1988 Republican convention. It sucked-- badly enough to remember eighteen years later. It had nothing to do with being the Republican convention. What made it worse was that everyone had heard about how lousy business had been for Atlanta restaurants during the Democratic convention a few weeks earlier, so my restaurant decided to open early and close late on the theory that it could get people before or after the convention activities. No such luck. Just ended up being much longer empty nights.

Lunches weren't much better, all the delegates and reporters had catered functions to attend. Most of the bartenders that I talked to reported the same thing, although a few received some business from the convention, that was ofset by the fact that their normal service industry customers weren't going out after work. The only businesses that did well were catering companies and place with large banquet facilities--mainly the larger hotels. In other words, some banquet waiters did well, nobody else did.

As for August always being a slow month anyway, that's true, but in my experience greatly exaggerated. You do have some tourists come to New Orleans during the Summer, although usually not the better customers, and you still have some locals. The convention kills both. Too hard for locals from other parts of the city to get downtown, some of the locals that live downtown even rent out their homes for the week. The French Quarter was pretty much a ghost town the entire week.

Sure the host city makes money off the hotel taxes, but it also has extra expenses. I think, that in most cases, it's at best a wash. I've long thought that economists and others who make projections of the financial impact of conventions and other events were somewhat clueless. There's simply too great a number of factors--spending habits of attendees, catered events in the hotel or at the convention site-- to acccurately predict how much spending any event will actually generate, and what the actual turnover, velocity or multiplier effect of that spending will be.

Talk to people who've actually worked in the tourism industry--not booster types whose jobs and mindsets lead them to overstate the benefits of any event-- in host cities and I'm sure that you'll find that for most of them it turned out to be a net negative. Full hotels are great, but if the money doesn't go far from the Sheraton or the Hilton, very few locals benefit. However, since I have no intention of ever returning to that business, I won't personally get angry about the suggestions of some well-meaning local bloggers.

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