Gloria Ray's Conventioneering

When it comes to showmanship, scarcely anyone else in Knoxville can rival Gloria Ray.

The prestidigitating president of Knoxville Tourism & Sports Corp. staged a vintage performance last week in a presentation on the “State of Knoxville Tourism.” Whenever she sounded the oft-repeated theme that, “the state of tourism is strong,” a character wearing a Popeye suit swung a hammer at one of those carnival strength test contraptions that sounds a gong whenever the hammer hits hard enough.

Amid all the gonging, however, it was less than clear how much of Ray’s hucksterism rang true. And her claims for bringing new business into the Knoxville Convention Center, for which KTSC is responsible, were clearly inflated.

One of Ray’s power points heralded that KTSC has succeeded over the past eight months in booking new events that will bring delegates to the convention center for a total of 187,500 delegate days. (That’s the number of delegates times the number of days they are to stay here.) A bar chart portrayed this as a 188 percent increase over bookings during KTSC’s first fiscal year of existence—the year ended last June 30. Wow!

When asked to furnish a list of events comprising that total, though, it turns out that 136,000 of these delegate days are derived from the Junior Olympic Games due to be held here in July 2007. Without taking anything away from Ray’s success in making Knoxville one of five cities to host these games on a rotating basis, the event is neither new nor is it convention-centric. The last time the games were held here in 2002, the then-brand new convention center was used for things like karate, table tennis and tumbling competitions. But those could be held at any number of other local venues, as they were when the Junior Olympics first came to Knoxville in the early 1990s.

That leaves nine other events booked into the convention center over the next five years, of which the largest—a Seventh-day Adventists’ conference with 15,000 delegate days—takes place this weekend. Looking ahead, there are four events scheduled in 2005, one each in 2006 and 2007, and one in 2009. Given the fact that convention planners typically pick their sites three or more years ahead of time, these bookings hardly comport with Ray’s claim that “we have momentum. We’re constantly growing.”

In her PowerPoint, Ray also touted a big increase in the number of new business proposals KTSC has made so far this fiscal year compared to last. Again expressed in her coinage of the realm, proposals that could yield 499,400 convention center delegate days have been made, compared with 198,175 days worth of proposals last year. So things could start looking up if many of them are fruitful.

The city is paying KTSC $750,000 a year under a contract stating that “KTSC’s primary mission for the City of Knoxville is to market, promote and book the Knoxville Convention Center.” As a performance standard, KTSC is expected to generate new bookings that have an economic impact of $4 million annually. Ray managed to get economic impact defined to mean a dubiously high $370 per delegate day. So it only takes about 10,000 delegates a year to satisfy this standard, which translates into two or three mid-sized conventions.

Many believe Ray fast-talked the prior city administration into agreeing to performance standards far below what’s needed to justify the city’s $162 million convention center investment. And Mayor Bill Haslam is clear that the bar has to be raised higher. Yet as of now, the economic impact of the new booking for 2006 (a linear acceleration conference) only amounts to $740,000. For 2007, exclusive of the Junior Olympic Games, the figure for the solitary Holstein Association USA convention that’s on the books is $1,110,000.

By no means does all the onus for a dearth of convention bookings rest on Ray and her organization. Lack of a first-rate headquarters hotel adjacent to the convention center is a major handicap. So are high airline fares in the absence of a discount carrier serving Knoxville.

Still, one has to question whether the KTSC is sufficiently focused on convention center bookings amid other responsibilities for attracting visitors to Knoxville. Its advertising is a case in point.

A full page KTSC ad in the February issue of Convention South is topped by a teaser picturing Davy Crockett and advising meeting and event planners to follow his maxim: “Be always sure you are right, then go ahead.”

The further advice that follows is to: “Be sure you have a spacious 80-acre outdoor facility and a newly renovated 57,000 square-foot exhibition hall. Be sure that your meeting is surrounded by natural beauty, outdoor recreation and numerous attractions. Be sure that your attendees can get there and back home simply and easily.

“When you’re sure you’re right, you’re sure to choose Knoxville, Tennessee and the city’s Chilhowee Park.” Huh? Chilhowee Park may be a great place for exhibits and for gatherings like the Honda Hoot that annually brings more than 20,000 motorcycle enthusiasts to Knoxville. But it’s by no means a full-fledged convention center. The Knoxville Convention Center, by contrast, is a proverbial state-of-the-art facility with meeting rooms, an auditorium and a banquet hall with excellent food service in addition to its 120,000 square feet of exhibit space. Yet, the KTSC’s ad in Convention South barely mentions it. Ray chose the convention center to hold her Popeye show, and she would be well-advised to have Davy Crockett heading in the same direction.

© 2004 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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