Meetings in the San Francisco Bay Area are on the rebound, with future bookings and hotel occupancies up, leading to a rosy forecast for 2012 and beyond from the region’s destination marketers.
San Francisco isn’t close to the glory days when visitor numbers reached their peak, the period from 1997 to 2000 at the height of the dot-com frenzy, but hotel occupancies are rising and planners can expect higher room rates and more sold-out periods.
The city is sure to be close to full due to several events in the coming year, including the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge, which prompted a renovation of the bridge’s southeast plaza and the construction of a spectacular new pavilion at the scenic overlook. Festivities and fireworks over the bridge are scheduled for May 27.
Meanwhile, the America’s Cup sailing races (see sidebar) are expected to bring thousands to the City by the Bay during an already-busy summer and fall travel period this year and next.
Record-breaking attendance was marked at two of San Francisco’s annual citywide conventions, Oracle and Salesforce, which each drew 46,000 last year. Such solid numbers are expected for those conventions this year.
Inquiries for future San Francisco meetings and conventions are 12 percent ahead this year compared to the same period in 2011, according to John Reyes, executive vice president of the San Francisco Travel Association (SFTA), who says the city is also running 2 percent ahead of bookings at the same time last year.
“Meeting planners need to start inquiring early for room availability,” he says. “San Francisco has strong vacation, business and meetings and convention business and every one of those segments are up and driving up occupancy and driving up demand. We’re fighting for supply and haven’t had any new inventory growth. So the good news for the hotel community is that occupancy and rates are up. What it means to planners is they need get involved earlier in the planning process.”
But the city is not complacent. SFTA recently launched “A Lot Can Happen in 49 Hours,” a campaign targeting 1,200 companies that may be considering holding short meetings.
“If you’re having a short meeting in San Francisco, there’s a lot that one can do here,” Reyes says. “Whether you are a corporation, association or third-party planner, let us show you the things that we can do in a short amount of time. Planners know about what Moscone Center offers but there is plenty that we can do for smaller and shorter meetings and conventions.”
Moscone Center, which was closed for two months, is wrapping up a $56 million renovation that has enhanced the facility with colorful images of San Francisco, new travel kiosks, restroom renovations and new carpeting and lighting, all scheduled to be unveiled at a June reopening. The project is the biggest upgrade of the 1.2 million-square-foot Moscone South and North facilities since the opening of the Esplanade Ballroom in 1991.
Nearby on Market Street, the city is working on improving the long-blighted downtown area called Mid-Market, which soon will be the new home of social media giant Twitter, other high-tech companies and new arts and theater groups. City officials hope to transform Mid-Market into a “hot” destination.
In hotel news, the first property in San Francisco’s historic Presidio National Park recently opened, the 22-room Inn at the Presidio, in a restored brick building that dates to 1903.
The Hilton San Francisco Union Square is nearing completion of a $51 million renovation to update its 550 rooms, public areas and meeting rooms.
Also at Union Square, the former Crescent Hotel was taken over by chef and hotelier Charlie Palmer and transformed into a 79-room boutique property, the Mystic Hotel, which features Palmer’s restaurant, the Burritt Tavern.
The Grand Hyatt San Francisco’s $70 million renovation project continues with $14 million allocated to its meeting facilities, including a new Grand Foyer with 5,700 square feet of flexible meeting space and an update of the hotel’s Theatre Level meeting rooms and Conference Theatre with local artwork.
At Fisherman’s Wharf, the Hyatt is working on a $1 million upgrade to the hotel’s 19,000 square feet of function space.
Other top meetings properties include Hotel Nikko, Parc 55 Wyndham and San Francisco Marriott.
Meanwhile, room occupancies—and rates—are going up all over San Francisco, according to Thomas Callahan, co-president and chief executive officer-west for PKF Consulting.
“2012 will be an outstanding year, short of war, pestilence and things that we cannot control,” he said at a recent travel industry forum.
Even though the U.S. economy continues to struggle, San Francisco hotels are seeing strong bookings, he says. Occupancies rose to 82 percent in San Francisco in 2011. Occupancies for the three-county area of San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin rose to 80 percent, and average daily rates were up by 13.8 percent.
PKF is forecasting hotel occupancies for the three counties to be up nearly 1 percent in 2012 over 2011. Average daily hotel rates for the counties will shoot up to $171.17 in 2012, up 10.4 percent from 2011 levels, PKF predicts.
San Mateo County
San Mateo County and the Silicon Valley city of Palo Alto had a banner year in 2011, according to Anne LeClaire, president and CEO of the San Mateo County/Silicon Valley CVB.
“We’ve had 29 straight months of occupancy increases, and we’re very optimistic that they will continue,” she says.
In just the first two months of 2012, hotel occupancies rose to 79.1 percent, 10.4 percent higher than the same period in 2011.
The county brims with meetings options, including several properties near San Francisco International Airport, such as the Hilton, Hyatt Regency, Marriott and Sofitel; the South San Francisco Conference Center; and The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay on the Pacific Coast. New meeting facilities include the campus of the Oshman Jewish Family Community Center in Palo Alto.
The bureau is planning to host more meeting planners on familiarization trips because they have proved successful.
“Once they’re here, they come back,” LeClaire says. “The first time people book meetings it’s because of our proximity to San Francisco and the airport. The reason they return is the scenic beauty.”
In Marin County, located north of San Francisco, hotel occupancies and meetings bookings are also on the rise, according to Christine Bohlke, the Marin County CVB’s sales and marketing director.
“Things are better,” she says. “The first quarter this year was an improvement over the same time last year. We’re running close to 70 percent occupancy.”
Bohlke says Marin’s selling points for meetings are its beauty, ideal climate and proximity to almost everything in the Bay Area, including pristine wilderness, coastal areas and protected farmland.
The Lodge at Tiburon, under new ownership, is undergoing a major renovation.
Oakland is preparing for a new brand and marketing campaign planned to launch this summer, according to Amy Blaschka, interim CEO for the Oakland CVB.
“We’re looking at doing something very positive and personal,” she says.
The city got a boost when The New York Times listed Oakland as one of the top places to visit in the world in 2012, citing the booming dining, arts and cultural scene.
“The hoteliers I’ve talked to are saying that this year will be better than last year and that the second half of 2012 in particular looks very good,” Blaschka says. “It won’t be record breaking but we’re seeing solid meetings business. Having a newly renovated convention center that looks fantastic will help, along with the great press about our dining and culture.”
The city’s convention center recently completed an $8 million renovation and the adjacent Marriott City Center received a $17 million facelift. The hotel project targeted the 489 rooms and 25,000 square feet of meeting space, including a grand ballroom that connects the Marriott to the convention center’s exhibit hall. Together, the hotel and center have 58,000 square feet of contiguous meeting space.
“They both look very contemporary and terrific,” Blaschka says. “They flow right into each other and the decor is seamless, which is nice. The location next to historic Oakland is great and we’re trying to incorporate the area’s blues and jazz history into the decor and atmosphere of the center.”
Meanwhile, the Claremont Hotel Club & Spa in the Berkeley Hills will host new programs this year, including a wellness weekend in August. The program will feature organized tennis matches, multicourse dinners and spa services.
In the Tri-Valley area of the East Bay, which includes Danville, Dublin, San Ramon, Livermore and Pleasanton, occupancies are on the upswing midweek as local corporations in the area, including Safeway, Chevron, Oracle, Clorox and Kaiser, are planning more meetings, according to Grant Raeside, executive director of the Tri-Valley CVB.
“Based on reports, we’re trending up,” he says. “We had 61 percent occupancy in 2011 and we’re running at 66 percent so far in 2012. Companies are breaking out of the shell they’ve been in, reorganizing and restructuring. They’re back in business and we’re seeing a huge increase in our midweek hotel occupancies and meetings.”
New developments in the area include a $4 million renovation of the main ballroom at the San Ramon Marriott and the opening later this year of Paragon, a large premium outlet center that is expected to be a major shopping destination in the region.
The bureau is launching a campaign with a new slogan, “Discover Endless Possibilities,” targeting leisure travelers and highlighting the area’s 50 wineries. But the message pertains to the meetings market, too, according to Raeside.
“A lot of planners don’t know where we are and that we’re close, only 19 miles from Oakland and 33 miles from San Francisco. There are lots of great reasons to hold meetings here, including that we’re a fraction of the cost, we’re safe and we have great weather.”
San Francisco-based freelancer Laura Del Rosso has written for travel industry magazines for more than 20 years and is the author of Great Escapes: Northern California.