The Greater Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau has formed a new group to book more biotech, life science, medical and healthcare conferences in and around the city, according to CVB officials.
The CVB hopes to enable the city to draw the industry’s largest conventions, including the Biotechnology Industry Association’s annual assembly, which rejected an earlier attempt by the city to re-book it.
Life sciences and other healthcare-related meetings now account for 42 percent of the convention business generated in Philadelphia, its suburbs, and neighboring Delaware and New Jersey. One-third of that business goes to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which is about to undergo a $700-million expansion.
The new Greater Philadelphia Life Sciences Congress hopes to increase that draw across that region by raising the visibility of the region’s bio and health industries and promoting the its attractions, said Kathleen Otto, the group’s executive director.
The congress and the Philadelphia CVB have already set an ambitious goal: They hope to attract for a third time the annual convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. BIO drew 3,701 attendees to Philadelphia in 1996 and 18,679 in 2005.
“Our primary goal is to re-book it,” Otto said.
The Philadelphia CVB asked BIO to return in 2010, only to be told the city did not have enough space or hotel rooms to accommodate the growing biotech convention.
“We love Philadelphia and we had a great event there, and we were very disappointed, quite frankly, … that we couldn’t select Philadelphia for 2010,” said Robbi Lycett, BIO’s vice president for conventions.
“The overall meeting space is good in Philadelphia, but between our exhibit floor needs for our trade show, our business forum and our banquet-style plenaries – and then our hotel needs have grown significantly – we’re about 8,000 rooms on peak night. To get those kinds of rooms in a reasonable, commutable area with the kinds of hotels that our attendees will stay at, it’s challenging,” Lycett said.
According to Lycett, BIO’s conventions have grown to where this year’s event, to be held in the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center next week, requires about 750,000 square feet — 500,000 gross square feet of exhibition space, another 100,000 to 150,000 square feet for the business forum, and an additional 100,000 for its banquet-style keynote and plenary sessions that seat between 2,000 and 5,000 people.
Those needs effectively limit BIO to the nation’s top 10 convention centers and a few slightly smaller ones like the Boston center. For instance, BIO has lined up the San Diego Convention Center for its 2008 conference, the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta for 2009, Chicago’s McCormick Place for 2010, and Washington, DC, for 2011.
However, BIO has struggled to book its 2012 convention, Lycett said.
“We’re getting ready to go through a process now to determine what we want to do for the future,” said Lycett. “Once we get through that process this year, we’re going to try to get 10 years of dates in advance on the books around the country.”
Tom Muldoon, president of the Philadelphia CVB, said the life sciences congress is working to bring BIO back to Philadelphia in 2012 or soon after. But according to BIO, Philadelphia can forget about 2012: The group is seeking a West Coast location that year since it will be in Washington, DC, the previous year, Lycett said.
Since BIO’s last Philadelphia convention, the number of people attending the group’s annual international conventions has grown by about 1,000 each year. More than 20,000 people are expected to attend next week’s convention in Boston.
Beyond BIO, the Life Sciences Congress will help bring together the region’s 60 biotech, pharma, and medical employers and promote the region well enough to land more meetings and conventions – and perhaps more biotech and pharma companies, Otto and Muldoon said.
The Congress “really has been created to take advantage of the growing sector of the life science industry in the region,” Otto said. “The changes in the industry are happening so quickly that there are emerging associations, new products – all kinds of new reasons for people to get together. And Philadelphia is a great place because of the strength and critical mass of the industry here.”
Muldoon co-founded the Life Sciences Congress with Fritz Bittenbender, senior director of corporate affairs at Cephalon; James Gallagher, president of Philadelphia University; Dennis Flynn, president of the Pennsylvania Biotechnology Association; P. Sherrill Neff, a managing partner at Quaker BioVentures; and rheumatologist Allen Myers.
Overseeing it will be a board of 30 professionals representing the region’s biotech and pharma businesses, as well as research institutions, universities, and healthcare providers.
Muldoon said Philadelphia’s odds of hosting BIO or other larger conferences should improve once a planned $700-million expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center is completed.
The Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority is expected later this year to start a project that will nearly double the amount of contiguous exhibit hall space to 541,000 square feet from 315,000 square feet. The project, set to be completed in late 2009, will expand the center’s total area will expand to 1 million square feet from x square feet.
“The overall meeting space is good in Philadelphia, but between [BIO’s] exhibit floor needs for our trade show, our business forum, and our banquet-style plenaries … it’s challenging” to make it work in Philadelphia.
The expansion is expected to generate $140 million in additional economic activity from 280,000 additional room nights, as well as $150 million in additional activity from 2,000 new hospitality industry jobs. According to the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority, which operates the facility, the convention center generates $8 billion in regional economic activity, $3 billion of that in Philadelphia, and has been responsible for creating 50,000 hospitality jobs.
Philadelphia’s ability to host BIO or other large biotech and medical conferences should also improve once a pair of planned sizeable downtown hotels are built, said Muldoon and John Kroll, president of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association.
“When we do see the shovel go into the ground, once the demolition starts for the convention center, then there is a lot of interest in hotel development in the city. But they just haven’t been formally announced yet,” said Kroll, the general manager of the Hyatt regency Philadelphia at Penn’s Landing.
So far, a Four Points by Sheraton hotel is under construction at 12th and Race Streets. Construction is supposed to start later this year on a 650-room Renaissance hotel planned for a site on Broad and Race streets now occupied by a garage and the headquarters of a partner in the venture, Parkway Corporation.
Parkway is also a partner in the planned development of a 250-room hotel at Arch and 12th Streets to carry Starwood’s ‘W’ brand.
And on Vine Street between 16th and 17th Streets, developer David Grasso has proposed a hotel as part of a $315-million, 1.2-million-square-foot mixed-use project complex.
Along with all of these new projects, hotel owners this year will spend $160 million to renovate about 3,500 rooms, or one-third of the city’s hotel inventory, Kroll said.
According to the Philadelphia Hospitality Industry Snapshot released earlier this month, average hotel stays cost $156.34 per night, a bargain compared with New York and Boston – an advantage on which the Life Science Congress hopes to capitalize. The Snapshot also reported occupancy in Philadelphia center city hotels averaged 73.6 percent last year, the highest number since 1998.
Kroll said the local hotel industry bounced back from its post-911 slump, helped in part by tourists flocking to the 4-year-old National Constitution Center and revitalized Independence National Historical Park Mall.
But biotech, pharma, and medical groups played a bigger role given the size and strength of the regional cluster, according to Kroll. “Healthcare has always been the major room night producer in Philadelphia,” he said.
Even more hotel rooms could emerge on Philadelphia’s Delaware River shore long-term. The two casinos required for the city under Pennsylvania’s 2004 Race Horse Development and Gaming Act – Foxwoods and SugarHouse – include expansion plans that would create new hotels at each facility.
It is not clear when those casinos will emerge. Pennsylvania’s state Supreme Court has issued a preliminary injunction that effectively removes from the May 15 primary ballot a planned referendum on whether the city can ban casinos within 1,500 feet of schools, homes, or houses of worship. The measure would nullify both casino plans.
The injunction sets an April 27 deadline for legal filings – too late for legal advertising of a ballot question on May 15. But the court has not ruled out allowing the referendum at a later date.