Opening More Than 2 Years Away : Convention Center Bookings Mounting

Times Staff Writer

The San Diego Convention Center is still more than two years from completion, but officials of the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau reported Wednesday that they have already booked 27 conventions and 173 more are listed as tentative.

"I think in relation to the uncertainty of a completion date, the response is very encouraging," said Al Reese, spokesman for ConVis.

The booked and tentative conventions represent about 1.2 million delegates. The confirmed bookings represent attendance of 148,400 with a corresponding need for 303,000 hotel room nights.

The first group scheduled to use the waterfront facility is the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, which is booked for January, 1989.

Among others who have made commitments are the National Red Cross, for May of 1991, and the California Rental Assn., scheduled for October, 1989.

The convention center is supposed to open in July, 1988--six months later than originally proposed. Uncertainty over the opening, plus a perception in the convention business community that San Diego didn't want conventions, made it difficult, at least initially, to market the center, Reese said.

While the first convention definitely booked into the center won't take place until six months after the scheduled opening date, Reese says there are six conventions tentatively booked before then.

The difference between a confirmed booking and a tentative one is that the former has received approval from its governing organization to meet in San Diego, while the latter has yet to receive such approval.

"A meeting planner will take a look at a convention site, then put a hold on certain dates, and then get approval," Reese said.

Selling points that ConVis has used to attract conventions are the city's climate, particularly during the traditional convention season of fall, winter and spring; various traditional tourist attractions such as the beaches, zoo and Sea World, and the non-traditional, embodied in a resurgent downtown, which now can offer shopping and entertainment.

While the convention center has been mentioned among those capable of hosting a national political convention, where Republicans and Democrats nominate their presidential candidates, Reese says such a high-profile function in San Diego would have to overcome several obstacles.

First, such conventions are usually held in July or August. In San Diego, that is the peak of the tourist season. It's therefore unlikely that hotels already near capacity would be willing to shove aside full-rate-paying tourists to accommodate political convention delegates and accompanying media, who would pay reduced rates.

And such conventions aren't necessarily profitable for restaurants, bars and other entertainment attractions, a break from tradition made apparent at the Democratic convention last year in San Francisco.

In San Francisco, Reese noted, the preponderance of hospitality functions, at which free food and liquor were made available, cut into the restaurant and bar business.

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