The Cake Is Baked, Convention-Center Style

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Sunday’s Globe brought a supportive editorial asking for a careful look at the Mass Convention Center Authority’s planning process around doubling the size of the BCEC. It introduced a new line of argument — the larger size is needed to attract life science conventions, our expanded center will attract classier conventions than Vegas, and somehow being the site of life science conventions will result in innovations being spread around the world that benefits Boston’s reputation.

That’s a pretty delicate reasoning chain, particularly during a recession when taxpayers will look skeptically at a follow-up request for $1 billion in funding, or perhaps more.

Its intriguing to look at the data on our existing convention calendar (pulled 12/7 off the MCCA’s event calendar) and digested here in an excel file (with a significant modification; see explainer below). The calendar covers from 12/09 to 12/10.

Its interesting to note the comparison between the BCEC (which cost ~$800m to build) and the Hynes (which has received incremental upgrades over the past few years). The BCEC will hold 37 events with 329,404 expected attendees for an average of 8900 attendees per event. The Hynes will hold 51 events for 204,065 attendees for an average of 4000 attendees per event. I’m surprised to see how well the Hynes has held up and it brings me to what I view is the key issue facing the BCEC.

What was the marginal value of building the BCEC and what’s the marginal value of expanding it? No one seems interested in this question — certainly not Sasaki Associates, who’s BCEC Strategic Development Plan never comes close to addressing the question.

Giving the ongoing strength of the Hynes, how much have we gained by building the BCEC? We’ve certainly gained something, but its value is far from clear.

In reality, it’s room-nights that really matter, as the Convention Center Authority itself operates at a loss, so indirect benefits (like room nights and food/entertainment spend) really matter. And in that regard, the record is troubling — the BCEC’s room night per attendee peaked in 2006 at .8 and has decayed to .58 in 2009. The value of the convention center is largely in these room-nights, not having local attendees drive in and drive out on the same day, and the current number seems low, but again, the plan never addresses the issue.

So, the question I want answered is: how many big ticket conventions will we get (that we would not have gotten previously) in exchange for the estimated $1 billion price tag? How many room nights will they generate?

Explainer: The Convention Center site had a single attendee for the 12/10 auto show, which is obviously a placeholder/mistake. I’ve inserted 40,000 as the figure which is the number used for the boat show earlier in the year.