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Delays in Las Vegas Expansion Prompt BIO to Move 2012 Confab to Boston

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By Alex Philippidis

Delays in a planned expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center, together with a two-year dip in the amount of space leased at recent Biotechnology Industry Organization conventions, have prompted BIO to move its 2012 International Convention to Boston — even though that city's convention center has also postponed expansion plans.

Boston was originally approved for BIO's 2015 international convention subject to the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority completing a 200,000- to 300,000-square-foot expansion of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center's 516,000-square-foot footprint, a concept that first circulated when the facility was being designed about a decade ago.

BIO applied a similar stipulation to the 2012 show in Las Vegas, where the 3.2 million-square-foot convention center was to have undergone an $890 million expansion that would have added a concourse of meeting rooms to the center's South building.

The public-private Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which operates the city's convention center, postponed its expansion earlier this year. It cited as its reason declines in convention attendance and a decline in the number of conventions held in the city each year, which it in turn blamed on the weak national economy.

During the first seven months of this year, according to 2009 and 2008 figures from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, attendance at conventions held in Las Vegas fell by 26 percent from the same period a year earlier, from 2.9 million attendees to 3.96 million attendees. The number of conventions and meetings held in Vegas between January and July of this year dropped 19.5 percent compared to the same period in 2008, to 11,274 from 14,009.

Also, the volume of visitors to Las Vegas fell 6 percent during January-July 2009 from the year-ago period, to just under 21.4 million from 22.7 million.

In response, BIO executives moved up by three years the convention's return to Boston and waived the MCCA expansion requirements.

"Without the enhancement and additional meeting rooms, the [Las Vegas] space available to BIO was not adequate for our needs," Robbi Lycett, BIO's vice president for conventions and conferences, told BioRegion News this week. "Las Vegas didn't offer BIO anything to take the convention to Las Vegas. We chose it as a West Coast venue because our attendee surveys indicated interest in going there, and with [its] enhancement project the space would have met our requirements."

Vegas officials have committed to revisiting the project in the second quarter of 2010, but the city is officially out of the running for the 2012 convention. To date, some expansion-related work has been finished at the Las Vegas convention center, such as new restrooms in the central hall and underground utility upgrades, the trade publication Successful Meetings reported last month.

As a result, Boston will host the 2012 BIO convention in four venues: The career fair will be held at the MCCA's Hynes Convention Center; the Westin Waterfront hotel will be used for some programs and sessions and for meeting suites and overflow crowds for keynote luncheon addresses.

As for the other two venues, "We are still working out our plans for the [BCEC] space and the World Trade Center space," Lycett told BRN. "BIO will need expansion in Boston to continue to rotate into Boston on a regular basis, which we hope to do."

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Lycett said that BIO will not require Massachusetts to expand the BCEC in return for hosting BIO because it does notexpect to need as much space as first thought when it conditionally booked the 2015 convention for Boston.

He cited the 20 percent year-over year decline in net square footage that exhibitors have leased during this year’s BIO convention: The 2008 meeting, held in San Diego, leased 210,800 square feet, while the 2009 show, held in Atlanta, leased 176,000 square feet.

"We believe it will take us at least two years to get back to our 2008 net square footage and attendance levels, with conservative growth projections of 5 to 10 percent per year,” said Lycett. “This allowed us to return to Boston in 2012 because our projected growth has been slowed down due to the economy.”

Despite the drop in net square footage, BIO said the number of attendees to its annual confab has increased between 2007 and 2008. "The event can't be fully sustained within the BCEC. It's outgrown the venue," Mac Daniel, a spokesman for the MCCA, told BRN.

Officials from Massachusetts and Boston have projected the convention will generate $30.1 million in economic activity, based on projections that 10,000 rooms will be needed with 41,200 room nights booked there.

The shift from Las Vegas sets the stage for the biotech industry group's third convention in Boston since 2000; the first annual event was held in 1987. BIO's last Boston convention, in 2007, was highlighted by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick announcing the $1 billion, 10-year package of bioscience incentives and programs , with some changes, the following year as the Massachusetts Life Sciences Act of 2008 [BRN, June 16, 2008, May 14, 2007].

BIO 2007 racked up the all-time attendance high of 22,366. Since then, the number of people going to the life-sci industry group's annual conventions has dipped to 20,108 in San Diego in 2008 [BRN, June 23, 2008] and then to 14,352 for in Atlanta the following year. Even before the event, the Atlanta decline was being blamed on life sciences employers cutting back on tickets due to the recession [BRN, May 15].

For 2012, organizers expect to more than reverse the decline and attract some 26,000 attendees. "We're all hoping we'll get that number or at least 20,000," said Susan Windham-Bannister, president of the quasi-public Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, which oversees the state Life Sciences Act.

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