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Cities are still hot on the idea that if they build it, it will pay off. Over the past decade, new public capital spending on convention centers has doubled to $2.4 billion annually, and 44 new or expanded convention centers are currently in planning or construction stages. Conventions were the most stable part of post-September 11 business travel ["Meet Marketing," March 2002].
Now, citing declining attendance, a report from the Brookings Institution says the convention marketplace may be headed for long- term stagnation. At the nation's 200 largest conventions, attendance in 2003 languished at 1993 levels. Economic cycles and the shakeout in the technology industry are blamed for fueling a trend away from convention events.
Despite all the doomsday predictions, critics say the report takes a limited view of the industry. The problem, says Robert Canton, director of the convention and tourism practice for PricewaterhouseCoopers, is that the top 200 events change year to year, making comparisons difficult. When the dot-coms collapsed, so did many of the technology conferences, which made a substantial contribution to attendance numbers. But this isn't necessarily a permanent situation, he believes.
"Each community has to look at this on their own merits," says Canton. "What works for Chicago, New York and Las Vegas doesn't necessarily work for St. Louis or Indianapolis."