Trade-Show Attendance at New S.D. Center Drops : Economy: Recession is blamed for fewer convention visitors at bayside venue, but there is an increase in patrons for consumer shows.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The recession is making itself felt at the San Diego Convention Center, where attendance at conventions and trade shows was down over the first quarter from the same three months in 1991.

There was also a decline in trade show and convention attendance in all of 1991 from 1990, the bayside center's first full year of operation, center officials said this week.

On the other hand, total "turnstile clicks" at the consumer shows--including auto flower and sporting goods events--was up over the first quarter, following a healthy increase in 1991 over the previous year.

But trade shows and conventions, which attract business owners, executives and professional groups from out of town who stay for several days, generate a much larger economic benefit for the San Diego economy than consumer events, which attract mainly local residents for a few hours only.

San Diego's convention center is not alone with its problems. Last year was the worst in 20 years for the trade show industry, according to Tradeshow Week, a Los Angeles-based weekly publication that tracks the exposition market. And 1992 promises only slight, if any, improvement.

The trade show industry's three main indicators of health--square feet of exhibition space leased, visitor attendance and total exhibitors--were all flat or down in 1991 from the preceding year, off significantly from the 6% average growth in all three categories in recent years, Editor Darlene Gudea said.

The declines in San Diego's convention and trade show attendance--and a mixed outlook for the rest of 1992 and 1993--is bad news indeed for the already battered local tourism industry. That's because conventions and trade show visitors spend a lot at local hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions.

Each delegate to a trade show or convention spends about $970 during an average 3.5-day stay in San Diego, said Carroll Armstrong, the center's marketing director.

By contrast, consumer show visitors often pay only to park and to gain admission.

For the first three months of the year, conventions and trade shows attracted 78,500 visitors, down 15% from the 89,760 attendees over the first quarter of 1991. For all of 1991, conventions and trade shows at San Diego's convention hall attracted 231,148 visitors, down 8% from the 250,000 in 1990 delegates.

Conventions and trade shows at the San Diego center in all of 1992 are projected to total 40, attracting 233,900 visitors and delegates. That compares with 43 conventions and shows in 1991 and 45 in the center's maiden year, 1990.

Consumer shows in 1992 are expected to reach 27, up from 24 shows last year, but down from 27 shows in 1990, the center's maiden year. The convention center's marketing staff is projecting consumer show attendance at 383,500 this year, up from 340,332 in 1991 and 317,508 in 1990.

Chuck Schwartz, chairman of Epic Enterprises, an independent San Diego-based organizer of trade shows, said that, although the convention industry has held up relatively well in the recession, the poor economy has forced cost-conscious businesses to send fewer delegates to group meetings and shows.

"Trade shows become a more positive vehicle when things are slow because they are a more cost-effective means of marketing, versus sending sales people out on calls," Schwartz said. "But the recession does have an impact. Large companies that used to send four or five people to a trade show are now sending two or three. Those that sent 10 people last year will cut it to four."

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