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By FRANCISCO JAVIER CIMADEVILLA
September 16, 2004
The good news is that the final countdown for the opening of Puerto Ricos new, state-of-the-art convention center next year has begun. The bad news is that a lot of what needs to be in place to make the new facility a success isnt even on the drawing board yet.
Even if quick action were to be taken now to address the enormous deficiencies in room inventory, infrastructure, transportation, and marketing, the convention center is likely to be in a very grim financial situation in its first few years of operation.
And that will be a pity, because our new convention center is truly a world-class facility.
Slated to open in 2005, the Puerto Rico Convention Center will be the largest and most technologically advanced meeting venue south of the Rio Grande.
Built on a 113-acre lot on the former Miramar Naval Base in Isla Grande, the 580,000-gross-square-foot facility can hold conventions with up to 10,000 delegates. It boasts total exhibit and meeting space of 188,900 square feet, a 39,500-square-foot ballroom with a capacity for 4,400 (sitting), and 1,950 parking spaces.
Industry projections are that the convention center will generate $3 billion for the local economy in its first decade of operations, will create over 9,000 new direct and indirect jobs, will provide plenty of business opportunities for the islands tourism industry, and will position Puerto Rico as one of the premier destinations for meeting planners and organizations throughout the world.
That sounds great, until you realize that if all the delegates the convention center is designed to hold were to descend on San Juan when the facility opens next year, they would have to sleep in the park.
As of today, there are only 6,162 hotel rooms in the San Juan metro area, 6,780 tops if you throw in condo-hotels and guesthouses. Even if all those rooms were dedicated to host a 10,000-delegate convention which is impossible, as existing hotels have their basic clientele that cant be turned awayit wouldnt be enough.
Even the addition of the convention centers anchor hotel, a Sheraton, wont be enough. Its first phase, expected to add 500 rooms, wont be ready until 2007. Phase 2, which will add another 382 rooms, doesnt have a scheduled date of completion. A second, 900-plus room hotel at the site has been talked about, but no deal has been made with any hotel developer or operator yet.
Hotel-room capacity isnt the convention centers only inauguration-party pooper. There are other issues that need to be resolved if we are to avoid a looming big white elephant for years to come.
For example, one would hope that the current traffic nightmare on the convention centers doorstep would be remedied by opening day. Thats until you realize that the intersection between Miramar, Santurce, Condado, and Puerta de Tierra has been under construction for at least four years. We wouldnt bet on it being ready next year.
Besides the road challenges, does the Tourism Co. have a plan to add the necessary taxis, minibuses, and other transportation vehicles? Is the Metropolitan Bus Authority already drawing new routes to serve the new facility?
The point is that a 10,000-delegate convention would mean that at any given time, San Juan could be hosting at least twice as many visitors as it does now on the busiest day of the high tourism season. As of right now, it seems we will have the convention hall in which to gather them, but little else.
Finally, whos going to sell the big conventions that will be needed to fill the convention center to make it financially successful? In theory, the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau will. But lets face it, for all the good work it has been doing over the years, the PRCB cant do it alone. In the past five years, the PRCB has increased the number of annual room nights it has sold from 157,887 in fiscal year 1999 to 231,400 in 2004. Still, thats only one fourth of the total meeting & convention room nights generated in Puerto Rico every year. Sheraton and all the other large hotel chains on the island had better put their considerable worldwide marketing channels to work if we are to make a success out of our new convention center.
This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.