June conventions in Vancouver to bring tourism boost

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o What: A nonprofit organization that is funded by a public lodging tax and is charged with promoting Vancouver and Clark County by increasing its convention and visitor business.

o Annual operating budget: $850,000.

o What's new: In June, the agency expects a $2 million tourism boost from five statewide conventions taking place in Vancouver, including the Washington State Republicans and the Washington State Democrats.

o President and Chief Executive Officer: Kim Bennett.

o Where: 101 E. Eighth St., Suite 240, Vancouver.

o Employees: Eight.

o On the Web: Click here.

The state’s polarized political parties may have unwittingly worked together to boost the distressed tourism industry in Clark County.

June conventions in Vancouver for Washington’s Democratic and Republican parties (separate dates, of course) are set to draw hundreds of delegates and generate $2 million in local tourism dollars, when added together with three other conferences being held here next month.

The figure comes from a combination of hotel spending, meeting space rentals, catering, dining and shopping, said Kim Bennett, president and chief executive officer of the Vancouver USA Regional Tourism Office.

“It’s everything right down to people filling up their gas tanks to make the trip home,” she said.

The three other conventions include two for the Washington state Bar Association and one for the Association of Washington Cities.

o What: A nonprofit organization that is funded by a public lodging tax and is charged with promoting Vancouver and Clark County by increasing its convention and visitor business.

o Annual operating budget: $850,000.

o What’s new: In June, the agency expects a $2 million tourism boost from five statewide conventions taking place in Vancouver, including the Washington State Republicans and the Washington State Democrats.

o President and Chief Executive Officer: Kim Bennett.

o Where: 101 E. Eighth St., Suite 240, Vancouver.

o Employees: Eight.

o On the Web: Click here.

In all, the gatherings will bring at least 3,200 delegates into Vancouver over four long June weekends, more than twice the 1,413 conventioneers who visited during the same month last year, Bennett said.

“We think there could be a significant number over that total,” after counting the spouses and children that some delegates will bring along, said Bennett, whose agency markets Clark County to visitors and convention groups.

The numbers set a June record that could give a much-needed helping hand to local hoteliers.

Although most of the five convention groups will be headquartered at the downtown Hilton Vancouver Washington and its adjoining conference center, conventioneers will be staying in rooms and using meeting spaces all over Clark County, Bennett said.

“It’s not just a downtown convention. It brings people in and fills up hotels all over the region,” she said.

That could help the recession-plagued industry, which was hurt as consumers cut back on spending.

In 2009, Clark County’s lodging facilities reported a 15 percent drop in annual occupancy when rates in the county’s more than 2,600 hotel rooms slipped to 43.64 percent, down from 51.35 percent in 2008, according to the tourism office.

In June 2009, room prices averaged $82.53 per night, down from $89.43 in 2008.

Average occupancy and room-rate figures for 2010 are not yet available. However, room rates have dropped to as little as $60 per night this year at some area hotels, Bennett said.

The bargain prices are great for patrons but can ultimately be a losing proposition for workers in the hospitality sector, which employed 4,040 people in Clark County last year.

“If (hotels) aren’t making a profit, they have to lay off some of their work force,” Bennett said.

Hilton raising the game

Bennett expects local convention business will continue to grow, as word gets around about Vancouver and its city-owned downtown Hilton, which opened in 2005. The 226-room hotel’s adjoining convention center has banquet service for up to 1,300 patrons.

“It really did enable us to raise our game to the next level on hosting conventions,” she said.

That can often bring subsequent business into the area.

“The word just goes back out on the street that Vancouver was a great place to hold a meeting, and that puts us ahead of our competition,” Bennett said.

And if the Hilton was a main driver for convention bookings, other Clark County event venues and hotel properties completed the package needed by meeting planners for large — 1,000 people and more — groups.

Republican delegates expect to host a community event at Esther Short Park during their June 10-12 convention. The Democratic Party expects to host its primary meeting at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds during the weekend of June 3-6.

Welcoming guests

Bennett said hosting guests at regional meeting facilities and hotels will give visitors a chance to experience different parts of the community and put the “word on the street that Vancouver is a fabulous place to meet,” she said.

“Sometimes they’ve looked at Vancouver and felt we didn’t have the facilities to meet their needs. We’re saying, ‘We absolutely do. We’ll use multiple hotels and we’ll assist with transportation arrangements and make it work,’” Bennett said.