The Impact of Convention Center Conference Attendees on the City’s Economy

Business travelers are an increasingly important component of the hospitality sector and the District’s economy. In 2017, the District of Columbia attracted 22.8 million visitors to the city, approximately 41 percent of whom travelled here primarily for business and 59 percent primarily for leisure. This study analyzed the economic and fiscal impacts of conference attendees of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center (WEWCC). Convention center conference attendees are a small but important subset of business travelers to the District of Columbia because of the essential role they play in the of the 2.3 million-square-foot publicly financed WEWCC and the adjoining 14-story 1,175 room convention center hotel.

Data

This study used three types of data.  First, the study started with monthly hotel sales tax data for each hotel in the city for the years 2005 through 2016. Second, the study matched the monthly hotel tax data to Destination DC conference booking data (such as dates, number of conference days, number of registered attendees, number of requested hotel rooms) for large conferences for years 2005 to 2016. Large conferences are those citywide conferences held at the convention center with 2,500 or more hotel rooms booked in the city on peak nights. And third, the study used citywide average daily hotel room rates (ADRs) and occupancy rates from Smith Travel Research (STR) for years 2005 to 2018.

Upon review of the conference data for all years, medical conferences are the only subset of conferences that continues to be substantially large in all years in terms of reserved hotels room nights. They alone account for almost half of all city hotel room nights attributable to convention center attendees. Accordingly, all convention center conferences for all years were categorized into two broad categories: medical conferences and all other conferences.

Medical conferences are a boon to the District

Compared to years 2005 to 2013, the average yearly conference attendance at the convention center for years 2014 to 2016 was down 6.1 percent even as hotel spending rose by 24 percent. (Estimates for hotel spending by conference attendees was possible using monthly citywide hotel sales tax data, which was only available for the years 2005 through 2016.) The main reason for this result is the growing role of medical conferences at the convention center. Whereas medical conferences attendees once accounted for 43.1 percent of all annual conference attendees at the convention center, in more recent years they accounted for 50.9 percent of all attendees and were responsible for 68.8 percent of hotel spending by all conference attendees (Figure 1). The study also estimates that, on average, medical conference attendees spent at least 35 percent more on hotel rooms than other conference attendees. In sum, the higher share of medical conference attendees, with their higher rate of spending, more than offset the spending impact of lower overall level of conference attendees to the District.

Source: Author’s calculations derived from WEWCC Conference, DC Office of Tax and Revenue and STR data.

Looking Ahead

Figure 2 shows convention center conference attendance for time period: 2005 to 2019. The figure also shows the estimated attendance based on confirmed bookings for years 2020-2022.

Source: Destination DC WEWCC Conference data.

The study finds the average attendance for years 2014 to 2016 for all conferences was 319,020. For years 2017 to 2019, the annual average attendance for all conferences was 53,725 (16.8 percent) higher. But, the annual average attendance for all conferences for years 2020 to 2022 (as of June 2019), is 15,059 (4.7 percent) lower than in years 2014 to 2016.  The number of confirmed conference attendees for 2021 and 2022 may be a bit concerning, but conference bookings are likely to only increase given that there is one to two years of additional time to secure additional conference bookings.  

For years 2005 to 2016, there was an average of 7.0 medical conferences and 14.8 all other conferences took place per year (Figure 3). However, for years 2017 to 2022, confirmed bookings indicate that there will be an average of 7.2 medical conferences and 16.7 all other conferences per year. Also, in years 2005 to 2011 the average conference length (number of conference days per conference) was 3.4 days for all conferences and 3.6 days for medical conferences. However, for years 2012 to 2016 the average conference length was 3.8 days for all conferences and 4.3 days for medical conferences. The recent trend of more total conference attendees, more medical conferences attendees, and longer conferences at the WEWCC is expected to increase the economic impact of future conferences to the city.

Conclusion

Convention center conference attendees are a small but important subset of business travelers to the District of Columbia because of their essential role in the publicly financed the District’s convention center and the adjoining convention center hotel.  In 2017, over 455,000 conference attendees (excluding inauguration attendees) visited the convention center, and they spent an estimated $116 million in hotel spending which in turn generated an estimated $16.8 million in hotel tax revenue (7.8 percent of total citywide hotel tax revenue). Given the national and local trends for business travelers and the hospitality industry, the relatively new convention center hotel, and the existing convention center conference bookings for years 2020 to 2022, it is possible that city hotel spending (and other subsequent spending in the city) by all conference attendees in years 2020 to 2022 may approach or even exceed that of 2017.

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