Conventions bring biz prospects to R.I.

Conventions in Providence are expected to pump more than $15 million into the Rhode Island economy in 2015, bringing almost 16,000 people to the city to stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and shop.
But it’s possible the economic benefits could run even higher. This year the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau made an extra effort to bring in organizations whose members may find Rhode Island an attractive place to do business. The goal: to hopefully lure some companies to the state on a permanent basis, not just as conventioneers.
“We’re trying to align the conventions coming here with the industries our economic-development partners are working to attract,” said Martha Sheridan, president and CEO of the PWCVB. “We’ve told our sales team to pursue these types of groups, to help us showcase Rhode Island. Our goal is to strategically link the groups coming here with economic-development people.”
One example would be the Society of Naval Architects & Marine Engineers, who’ll be holding their annual meeting and expo in Providence in November. Rhode Island is already a center for that industry, being home to the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, a General Dynamics Electric Boat submarine shipyard and companies such as Ametek, based in Westerly, a manufacturer of parts for submarines and off-shore oil drilling. More than 600 professionals from that field will attend the convention, and the hope is some will consider relocating their companies here or partnering with some Rhode Island businesses.
During the event, some of the state’s economic-development specialists will be walking the floor of the convention center, talking about the business amenities found in Rhode Island.
Conventions will also give the state a chance to show off the new nursing school that’s moving into Providence’s Knowledge District. Medical organizations holding conventions in the city this year include the Association of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Nurses, which will attract 1,000 people in September, and the American Orthopedic Association, which will bring in 500 in June.
Providence will also be flaunting its reputation as a destination for foodies and gourmets. The American Cheese Society will bring 870 cheese professionals, purchasers and influencers to the city at the end of July. The city attracted another food organization, the American Association of Cereal Chemists, in 2014. The Pangborn Science Symposium – an annual event focused on the sensory analysis of food – will be held in Providence next year.
Organizations that will hold conventions in Rhode Island play down the possibility that some members might relocate to the state, or that such considerations might influence their choice. “We pick a different venue every year,” said Rebecca Sherman Orozco, marketing director for the American Cheese Society. “We have members all over the country so we try to reach a difference region every year. We haven’t been to the Northeast in some time.”
The Society of Naval Architects & Marine Engineers chose Providence “because of a study we did,” said Alana Anderson, director of events. “We decided to go to a second-tier city. Of those, Providence had the most to offer in terms of facilities, costs and ease of transportation. We do have a lot of members in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.”
Of course, the Convention & Visitors Bureau is not exclusively focused on attracting events that might bring new businesses to the state. They talk to any organization that will draw visitors with money to spend. “We have a sales team of young executives deployed all over the country,” said Tom Riel, vice president of sales and services. “We look for customers in what we consider our competitive cities.”
The sales effort also focuses on organizations that have active members living in Rhode Island who might help influence as association’s decision. When the convention-center team realized the Rhode Island State Police had recently won accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies, they contacted Col. Steven G. O’Donnell about helping them talk with the group. O’Donnell flew to Albuquerque, N.M., with the sales team, and the accreditation organization will be gathering in Providence in 2017.
Some of the most lucrative conventions are those focused on youth sports and other physical activities involving kids. That’s because they frequently draw whole families, not just singles. This year’s largest convention, scheduled for July 4th weekend, will be the Irish Dance Teachers Association National Competition. More than 6,000 attendees are expected, and it is estimated they could spend more than $6 million on a summer weekend when the city is usually empty and hotel and restaurants are quiet.
“Hotel rooms are already selling out for that group” Sheridan said. “We calculate the economic impact using a national standard. It includes spending on hotel rooms, facilities, transportation, taxes, and food and beverage.”
She notes that Rhode Island has a number of attractions that appeal to families, including WaterFire events, beaches and historic Newport.
On its website, the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau touts the Ocean State capital as an “historic city” and a “top food city” with plenty of “family fun” and “free things to do.”
They also note how times are changing. The website states that Advocate magazine recently picked Providence as “one of America’s gayest cities.” The site offers directions to popular gay bars and names drag queen Haley Star – best-known from YouTube posts – as the city’s “glambassador.” n

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