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City Officials Look Ahead to Return of Fall Conventions

Updated: Apr 1, 2021

  • San Francisco City Administrator said at a recent meeting that the City may welcome back convention visitors in late summer or fall

  • Moscone Center, Chase Center, Oracle Park and several hotels were certified by an independent bio-risk council, which evaluates facilities for safety during COVID

  • Several conferences, including the Cannabis Business Summit & Expo, Semiconductor West and Twilio's annual user conference SGNL, are planned or tentatively planned at Moscone Center this year

  • Given COVID uncertainty, many convention organizers are undecided on whether their events will be in-person, virtual or a hybrid

  • Moscone Center alone accounts for 21% of San Francisco's tourism industry, and tourism was responsible for about 107,000 jobs and $5.9 billion in annual wages in San Francisco pre-COVID

With the pace of vaccinations picking up, San Francisco officials are looking ahead to a possible revival of downtown conferences this fall.

At a town hall last week, City Administrator Carmen Chu said that the City is taking a close look at what conventions are scheduled in San Francisco "in late summer and fall" and strategizing on how to make them happen safely.

The City is "putting a focused effort on how it is that we will bring back our convention and visitor center. As many people know, when people come in for convention business, it really helps, as I've heard form our convention folks, with weekday activities," said Chu. "Typically we see many people who come into our City on weekends, to enjoy all San Francisco has to offer, and much of that is regional, in addition to our leisure travelers. But during the week, we depend very much on our convention business to really help to keep our businesses supported and keep our economy rolling."

San Francisco is prioritizing health and cleaning protocols at convention sites, in addition to its broader effort to vaccinate residents and stamp out the pandemic. Moscone Center, along with Chase Center, Oracle Park and several large hotels, secured a certification from the Global Biorisk Advisory Council, a group that independently evaluates facilities on their health protocols. The Orpheum Theater, Golden Gate Theater and other venues are expected to be certified soon.

"We want to make sure when people come back to San Francisco, they are visiting the best and safest place in the country," said Chu.

Starting in August, there are several conventions and meetings booked, or tentatively booked, at either Moscone Center or nearby hotels. Those include Nacha, a payments conference scheduled for August; an annual meeting of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand, starting in late September; and SGNL, Twilio's annual user conference, scheduled for October.

Twilio says it is unsure yet whether its annual Moscone Center conference will be in-person, virtual or a hybrid model. Other conventions set to take place at Moscone Center, including as the annual Cannabis Business Summit & Expo and Semiconductor West, were rescheduled for December 2021.

Some smaller gatherings planned at nearby hotels are expected to move ahead. Origami USA, a national origami association, plans to host around 300 conference attendees at the Parc 55 hotel in late October; likewise, other small conventions are tentatively planned at downtown hotels in the fall.

Moscone Center, which currently serves as a mass vaccination site and ground zero for San Francisco's COVID response, typically hosts a packed calendar of conventions and trade shows.

In a typical year, Moscone Center draws in more than a million visitors and accounts for a whopping 21% of San Francisco's overall tourism industry, accounting for hotel bookings, restaurant activity, transportation and other spending associated with conventions.

Pre-COVID, tourism was responsible for about 107,000 jobs and $5.9 billion in annual wages and benefits in San Francisco, according to Beacon Economics. In 2018, tourism contributed $771 million to the City’s coffers by way of hotel taxes and property taxes.

"I'm excited to see [Moscone] back hosting conventions, bringing visitors from around the world, and helping to drive our economic recovery," said Mayor London Breed in a statement this week. "But we need to remember that we're not out of the woods yet. We're making faster and faster progress on our vaccinations, but cases in other states are beginning to rise again."

However, a full recovery of Moscone Center isn't a guarantee.

In an October 2020 Civil Grand Jury audit, a panel cautioned that the convention businesses is likely to grow more competitive coming out of COVID. Owing to high costs and "street blight" surrounding Moscone Center, San Francisco is at risk of losing ground to Las Vegas, San Diego or other popular convention sites, according to surveys and research cited in the audit.

Thanks to the near-disappearance of commuters and weekday tourists during COVID, downtown businesses recorded a more than 70% drop in sales tax revenue in the second quarter of 2020, the steepest drop of any section of San Francisco.

Low-wage sectors like restaurants and hotels absorbed most of those losses, according to the SF Controller's Office.

"Tech employment in the City has actually rebounded," said City Controller Ben Rosenfield, in response to a question about the impact of tech office relocations on the City's economy.

"The bigger worry is not relocation of companies...but the return of workers to the downtown core," he said.


Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup

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