Zurik: Convention Center out-of-town totals 'essentially useless'

Zurik: Convention numbers could still be skewed
Updated: Jul. 18, 2018 at 10:15 PM CDT
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Data from Morial Convention Center's latest economic impact report. These statistics have not...
Data from Morial Convention Center's latest economic impact report. These statistics have not been confirmed by FOX 8.

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A critic of convention centers says the one here in New Orleans must not care about being wrong. Almost two years ago, we investigated the Morial Convention Center and showed how their attendance numbers are way off.  Now, new numbers show the trend continues, possibly worse than ever.

According to the Morial Convention Center, 2017 was a successful year. Their records show 711,000 out-of-state attendees visited the center, the most since 2003.

But the story behind the numbers paints quite a different picture.

"This stuff is just wrong," says Heywood Sanders, a researcher and professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio who has written extensively on publicly-funded convention centers. "It's not conceivable that we're talking about a clerical error here. It makes no sense."

Sanders tells us some of the people putting these data together are "not honestly doing their jobs."

In 2017, according to the center's event statistics, 155,000 people "partied with a purpose" over the extended weekend prior to July 4. That's how many people they claim attended Essence Festival events at the center.

But, in the same statistics report, MCC puts the number of out-of-state attendees at exactly 155,000. From that, it would appear that absolutely no New Orleans residents attended Essence.

"That's in the numbers they gave you," Sanders remarks as he reviews our documentation.

Historically, the Essence out-of-state numbers have varied widely. In 2013, MCC reported 125,000 out-of-state attendees. The next three years it dropped significantly, but then increased by 115,000 from 2016 to 2017.

"That means that they're totally misrepresenting to the public the kind of business they're doing," Sanders tells us. "If they were a retail firm and they were inflating their sales by 25 percent, folks would scream."

A quick search on Facebook confirms that New Orleanian after New Orleanian attended the 2017 NOLA ChristmasFest. The center reported attendance just under 47,000.

Again, the total for out-of-state attendees comes to roughly the same number, 46,553.

"And that's wrong, we know that's wrong," Sanders insists.

According to the convention center, none of the out-of-state attendees booked a hotel room - they report no "room nights" for the event. Supposedly none of those visitors to the Crescent City needed a flop in town.

"it's implausible," Sanders says.

The discrepancies go on and on: 22,000 attendees at Comic-Con, all 22,000 from outside the metro area; much the same balance reported for the Rock and Roll Marathon.

"Lots of folks who participate in the marathon, the vast majority of them, those are local folks," our researcher notes.

The center told us they track "attendance for events held at our facility in several ways: by registered attendees, by room nights, and by paid attendance at public shows that are ticketed." By phone, a MCC official told us out-of-state attendance numbers typically come from the conference group.

That means the 46,000 out-of-state attendees figure reported for ChristmasFest came from the Convention Center - they organized the event and the ticket sales.

"it's bad," Sanders warns, "I mean, it's bad."

Heywood Sanders has been criticizing the convention industry for 25 years.  He wrote a book, "Convention Center Follies".

"it's very clear the Morial authority folks are representing out-of-state attendees that simply aren't," he says.

Here's why the discrepancies matter.

The Morial Convention Center circulates a yearly economic impact study to help show lawmakers and business leaders that they're an economic engine. If these numbers are inflated, so is the center's impact.

"Every last one of those 46,533 ChristmasFest attendees get pumped into that UNO economic impact study," Sanders says, "that assumes every one of them is staying overnight in a hotel room and spending money in local hotels and restaurants. "Which means that the estimate in that economic impact study every year - they're off, way, way off. They're essentially worthless."

In 2017, the center collected $62 million in tax revenue. It has a cash reserve of $211 million. They want to use some of that money to help subsidize a new hotel.

Sanders warns, until the convention center can accurately give taxpayers the basic attendance figures, political leaders should push them to pause the hotel project.

"Where are the numbers coming from that justify the hotel?" he asks. "If these numbers are thoroughly fudged and substantially unreliable, how can we trust the promises that surround this proposed 1,200-room hotel?"

If each and every visitor at many of these events - including the New Orleans Home and Remodeling Show, and the Greater New Orleans International Auto Show - were not all from out-of-state, as the convention center claims, their actual out-of-state attendance may be quite a bit lower, mirroring sort of the numbers New Orleans saw in the late 1980's.

"These folks are not behaving as good, thoughtful stewards of those public dollars," Sanders says. "They're claiming performance that doesn't add up."

The convention center recently hired a new general manager, Michael Sawaya. He started in February , after all of the events in this reports took place.

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