At Uno Pizzeria in Providence Place mall, the staff is still talking about the national cheerleading competition that took place in the city several months ago.
“We broke our sales record for the region in an hour,” said Kyla Casey, restaurant manager. “We had parties of 75 calling here a month in advance and placing orders off our catering menu.”
As Casey’s enthusiasm shows, while other parts of Rhode Island’s economy may still be limping, convention and business meetings are strong, and they’re giving a boost to hundreds of establishments throughout the state. The trend took off two years ago, and by all accounts, it will continue through 2014. Some planners are so confident, they’re already making rosy predictions for 2015 and beyond.
“As the economy continues to improve, we are seeing an increase in convention bookings,” said James P. McCarvill, executive director of the R.I. Convention Center Authority. “During fiscal 2013 the Rhode Island Convention Center experienced some growth with 14 conventions and in fiscal 2014 we have 25 booked.”
Last year’s convention boom was so strong, some planners balk at forecasting an increase for the next 12 months. There may be more conventions, but will there be more small events? And will they be bigger? That may be tough to pull off.
“This is going to be a transition year,” predicted Kristen Adamo, vice president of marketing at the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau. “When meeting planners are booking events, they start several years ahead of the date, so we know what’s coming. We’re very positive about 2014, but 2013 is going to be tough to beat.”
Hotel registries tell last year’s story. “There were several months in 2013 – August, September and October – in which Providence hotels passed 80 percent occupancy,” Adamo said. “Other areas of the state reaped the benefits, too. A soccer tournament at URI brought in 10,000 soccer players and their families.”
Adamo and other planners say it’s impossible to estimate just how much cash conventions and business meetings pump into the Ocean State, because the industry involves so many businesses, from grand hotels like the Providence Biltmore Hotel to food trucks and barber shops.
There are figures for the nation, however, and they are staggering. In 2012 conventions and business gatherings across the country contributed more than $115 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product, according to a recent report by the Convention Industry Council. More than $88 billion went into tax coffers at every level.
Just who are these people meeting up in Rhode Island? Last year Providence hosted the National Strength and Conditioning Association, the International Association of Food Protection, the Council of Engineering and Scientific Society Executives, the American Wind Energy Association, and Bruhan Marashtra Mandal of North America, an Indian-American cultural organization.
Some smaller, regional organizations return every year: the New England Turf Grass Association; the Rhode Island Comic Con, for comic book lovers; and the NecronomiCon, for fans of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, a Providence native.
Several major events are on the calendar for the months ahead. “In June we’ll be hosting the annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association,” said Adamo. “And we’re planning for the North American Bridge championship that will be here from Nov. 27 to Dec. 7. That will be a huge event, which is unusual for that time of year. It will mean 13,000 hotel room nights.”
Business meetings aren’t confined to Providence and Warwick. In Newport and Bristol County, R.I., they keep the midweek economy running when weekend tourists have gone home.
“As of November, we’re up 3.5 percent from last year,” said Tim Walsh, vice president of sales at Discover Newport, the regional visitors bureau. “This year we’re seeing a nice jump in actual booked room nights.”
The optimism in Newport extends into the future, as the city is the only North American stop for the 2015 Volvo Ocean Race, an international sailing event that will bring a horde of visitors from around the world to Rhode Island.
“Corporate events and conventions are big for us throughout the year,” said T.R. McGrath, owner and president of McGrath Clambakes & Catering of Newport. “They might be having a party to reward employees, or they’re bringing businesspeople here. They’ll have their meetings and seminars all day, and then you want to treat them to something special,”he said.
“Public cruises – where you buy a ticket and get on board – are the biggest part of our business,” added Kim Paltridge, operations manager at Classic Cruises of Newport.
Museums and cultural venues that include auditoriums and kitchens are cashing in, too. Today corporate groups gather everywhere, from the Providence Public Library to Newport’s International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum.
Last year, the Roger Williams Park Zoo hosted 19 such events. “It’s a growing part of our business, and it’s something we feel we have great potential to expand on,” said Jeremy Goodman, executive director of the Roger Williams Park Zoo. Location is one reason convention planners choose Rhode Island. The state’s Northeast location means a huge portion of the national population is within a few hours’ drive. The attractions are a draw, too.
“We’re a vibrant capital city, but with a lot of small-town charm,” said Brian Hodge, communications manager for the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau. “You can experience great restaurants and clubs, but at the same time you can walk over to the East Side and experience a lot of history.”