It's the Convention of Conventions as Anaheim Courts New Business

Times Staff Writer

Fresh from a World Series victory, Anaheim is now competing in a high-stakes contest that could make the Fall Classic look like a warmup game.

This week, the city is host to one of the most important and elaborately staged conventions it has seen in years, for a group of meeting planners most people have never heard of. And the economic stakes are dizzyingly high.

If Orange County puts on an impressive show for the 2,500 or so members of the Professional Convention Management Assn., Anaheim officials estimate they can bag an additional $4 billion in future business over the next decade.

But it's a tricky two-step for Anaheim. One-third of that group's attendees are meeting planners scrutinizing the city's $4.2-billion resort make-over, including the expanded Convention Center, Downtown Disney and California Adventure, all with the idea that they may one day bring conventions to Orange County. The rest -- convention center CEOs and hoteliers from cities big and small -- are trying to lure them away.

As Anaheim puts on the ritz, convention officials from Chicago, Orlando and Las Vegas are tossing invitation-only parties, staging harbor cruises and entertaining clients at the county's trendiest restaurants in hopes that Anaheim has limited success in nailing down future convention business.

"We have to be aggressive," said Charles Ahlers, president of the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau.

"You've heard the phrase 'This is not your father's Oldsmobile'? Well, the same thing could be said here. Anaheim is not the place you think it was.... We have sex appeal now."

To that end, Anaheim is showing off its $177-million Convention Center expansion, hoping to cement its new position in the top tier of such centers. The total of 1.4 million square feet gives it the largest exhibition space among convention centers on the West Coast.

For this week's convention, the lavish opening-night gala alone cost about $300,000, with free-flowing martinis and a Mondavi wine-tasting bar. Elaborate floral arrangements and pineapples fashioned into palm trees decorated buffet tables overflowing with Australian lobster tails, sesame-crusted and seared ahi, and dark chocolate fondue.

The event was orchestrated down to the long stroll through the dark and empty exhibit hall, a way of showcasing its vastness. Acrobatic performers from iL CiRCO balanced, danced and twirled on small, lighted stages. In the lobby, big-screen TVs looped World Series highlights.

"We went to the ultimate, nth degree," said Anaheim's convention services director, Carolyn Pesenti Green.

In preparation for the four-day conference, city officials toured the resort area to note any areas that needed sprucing up. They ordered every window at the Convention Center washed, every palm tree pruned. Even the lightbulbs were changed. Electronic traffic signs on Katella Avenue and Harbor Boulevard were programmed to state "The Anaheim Resort Welcomes PCMA," and street banners sporting the association's logo went up.

The city mailed letters to restaurants, hotels, cabdrivers and local businesses, urging them to be on their best behavior when PCMA members hit town.

Official greeters in red (the signature color of the Anaheim Angels) met conventioneers at LAX and John Wayne Airport. Disney closed down a section of California Adventure on Monday night to hold a bash. And on Wednesday, the close of the four-day event, the Beach Boys will perform at a "Surfin' Safari" concert in the Convention Center's grand ballroom.

"This is that important," Ahlers said, adding that convention business brings about $1.4 billion annually to the Orange County economy.

The convention comes during a cosmic alignment of sorts for Anaheim, still aglow with the national publicity from the Angels' World Series victory. The resort upgrades are finally complete and the Convention Center is in the middle of its latest campaign pitch, a series of ads asking the question, "Who am I?" The answer is typeset over slick, moody pictures of the palm tree-lined Convention Center: "I'm great at entertaining and even greater at 'meeting expectations.' I'm beyond what you think and exactly what you need. I'm all new and beyond 'convention.' "

Despite Anaheim's remake, convention officials can hear the hammering of new construction in cities competing for a piece of the annual $100-billion convention industry. There are more than 60 convention center expansions or new development projects underway, and in five years there will be 20 million new square feet of exhibit space -- equal to 24 Anaheim exhibition halls.

"The competitive nature of what we're about is becoming staggering," said William Peeper, president of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau in Florida, where a $750-million expansion will be completed next year.

Playing host to PCMA is such a major opportunity to show off a region that association President David Kushner said he's constantly being approached by people begging for the chance.

Orlando's Peeper is one. "One of my goals here is to begin the discussion process for a return engagement. It's part of our strategic plan to host PCMA every 10 years," he said.

Five members of his sales staff came with him to help court prospective clients. They're keeping a wary eye on Orlando's biggest nearby competitor, Atlanta, whose convention center president, Spurgeon Richardson, joked, "It's a collegial industry. We're all friends, but my goal here is to take people away from Orlando."

Richardson, ever the salesman, can't help rattling off Atlanta's statistics (17 million guests a year and $9 billion in economic impact) and ending his discourse in a friendly drawl: "We're Atlanta, and you're invited."

Cities with representatives in Anaheim this week keep a "hit list" of top clients. Those people are frequently wined and dined and given gifts such as a World Series ball ("Experience Anaheim: A winning destination") and "familiarization trips."

Cynthia Gady, senior director of meetings and exhibits for the Optical Society of America, will eat one night at the swank Napa Rose in the Grand Californian Hotel, bordering Disneyland. And with her 38,000-attendee annual convention in play, she'll have her pick of other private events staged to woo her business.

San Diego, Montreal and Hawaii have rented the House of Blues, the Grove and other Anaheim venues to host invite-only parties.

In the end, though, "I cannot be bought," Gady said. It's the customer service she cares about.

She recalls that when her conference ballooned from 10,000 people a few years ago to 38,000 in 2001, she frantically called cities with spacious convention centers.

Only Anaheim moved meetings to accommodate her. She has returned the favor with lucrative repeat business that translates to about $1,400 per attendee. Now she's thrilled to see the resort upgrades.

"When I turned on Convention Way, I said, 'Oh my God, this is stunning what they have done,' " Gady said. "It's the wow factor. The whole package became complete -- the space, the hotel rooms, all these restaurants, and the service."

The only downside to hosting PCMA is that other organizations will discover Anaheim, creating more competition for scheduling and driving prices higher, said Shelley Cohen of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in Maryland.

"I was here when the electrical wires were aboveground and when it was mom-and-pop hotels," Cohen said. "But this is going to put them on the map. It is going to be one of the hottest destinations."

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The big league

Sixteen cities hosted nearly half the 13,185 exhibitions held in the United States and Canada in 2000, according to research by an industry group.

Orlando -- 625

Las Vegas -- 589

Toronto -- 582

Chicago -- 493

New Orleans -- 447

Atlanta -- 422

Dallas -- 382

New York -- 346

San Diego -- 331

Washington, D.C. -- 323

Nashville -- 296

Denver -- 265

San Francisco -- 247

Anaheim -- 233

San Antonio -- 223

Boston -- 216

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Source: Center for Exhibition Industry Research

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