1st Big Convention Won’t Come Before 1990

Times Staff Writer

Saying that they have been “burned twice” by delays in construction of San Diego’s waterfront convention center, local tourism officials plan to avoid scheduling large conventions before 1990. The decision could leave the facility vacant or underutilized for much of its first six months.

Although the convention center project, in the process of being rebid in an effort to trim a projected $20-million budget increase, could be completed by May, 1989, the local officials whose job it is to fill the center with conventioneers said Thursday that, while they are already soliciting business, they do not intend to book major conventions until after January, 1990. Instead, smaller meetings and local shows--such as auto and boat displays--might dominate the center’s initial client list.

Tourism officials concede that their strategy probably will reduce convention revenue during the center’s early months. However, they argue that their cautious marketing approach--one designed to prevent convention cancellations in the event of future construction delays--is necessary to help rebuild San Diego’s credibility in the convention industry in the wake of earlier embarrassing postponements.


“As of now, we’d say ‘no’ to any major group that wanted to come in between now and January, 1990,” said Dal Watkins, president of the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau. “That probably will cost some money in those first few months. But the long-range credibility of the city and the center is more important.”

Stressing that they will closely monitor the center’s construction, Watkins and other tourism executives also noted that some large conventions conceivably could be booked for late 1989--if the local officials feel confident that the center will, indeed, open on time.

“Once we get a fix on the (opening) date, then we can go after bookings,” Watkins said. “But at this point, we’re going to be very careful about any big commitments for 1989.”

Jim Durbin, president of the San Diego County Hotel-Motel Assn., explained that the decision to not aggressively solicit major conventions for the last half of 1989 is intended to “keep us out of a situation where we have to say, ‘Sorry,’ again” to convention booking agents.

“Our people have already stubbed their toe in the marketplace twice by working on booking conventions and then having to go back and tell the planners that the center’s not going to be ready in time,” Durbin said. “We don’t want to run into any more problems by cutting it too close to May (1989). This way, we have a six-month period to cover any error factors.”

The plan to target 1990 for what Durbin termed “the big, full-speed-ahead push” to solicit major conventions has been reviewed by the convention center’s board of directors, and is strongly supported by convention center manager Tom Liegler.

“I think it’s a very wise marketing decision,” Liegler said. “What we’re talking about is representing the San Diego area on a matter called integrity. To protect our reputation, it makes sense to start selling the center after we have a great deal of certainty about the opening.”

Even before the San Diego Unified Port District voted last month to rebid the project, the convention center’s construction timetable was more than six months behind because of excavation delays stemming from severe water drainage problems on the 11-acre Navy Field site, adjacent to Seaport Village and the Hotel Inter-Continental.

The port’s decision to solicit a second round of bids--made after construction bids came in more than $22 million over the $101.5-million budget--pushed back the target August, 1988, opening date to the spring of 1989. That delay, ConVis officials say, could force the cancellation of more than three dozen conventions and cost more than $60 million in lost business.

As local tourism officials have contacted convention bookers to inform them of the delay caused by the rebid, they have encountered reactions that range from sympathetic understanding to anger, Durbin said.

“It runs the gamut from, ‘That’s too bad--but we’ll be back,’ to, ‘Don’t call us until you’ve got steel in the ground,’ ” said Durbin, who served on a special mayoral task force that recently reviewed the convention center project. “And then there are some who say, ‘That’s it--I’ll never be back here.’ ”

However, ConVis spokesman Al Reese said that some conventions originally scheduled to use the center in 1988 have tentatively agreed to new post-January, 1990, dates.

In addition, Liegler emphasized that local officials hope to persuade convention planners to stage their events at the downtown Community Concourse convention center until the new bayfront center opens--a plan hampered by, among other factors, the concourse facilities’ smaller size.

A joint city-port panel that coordinates planning for the convention center project estimates that the center will be “substantially completed” by May 15, 1989, Durbin told the Hotel-Motel Assn. at its monthly meeting Thursday.

“That means it’s like moving into a new house--the structure’s done, but you still need drapes and some other finishing touches,” Watkins explained.

As construction proceeds, local officials may feel confident enough to book major conventions for late 1989, Durbin said.

“The key is to be absolutely honest,” he said. “We can tell planners we’d be happy to take their group on a tentative basis, but let them know a date in 1989 isn’t a guaranteed thing.”

If that caveat emptor warning does not frighten off prospective conventioneers, another factor that could hinder local attempts to lure large meetings in late 1989 is the fact that many major trade associations book their conventions on a three- to eight-year cycle.

“Even if we can see in 1988 that the center’s going to open on time, it may be too late in terms of 1989,” Durbin said. “Once you miss these big conventions, you have to wait for the next cycle. A year or two usually isn’t enough lead time.”

However, Liegler and Watkins argue that having the convention center host smaller consumer shows--home and garden shows, for example--during its early months offers certain advantages. One positive side effect, Watkins said, is that such shows are oriented to local residents and “will show San Diegans that this is their facility, not just something for out-of-towners.”

The center’s operators also regard those smaller shows as a shakedown period to prepare for the major conventions that will follow, Liegler said.