They poured into convention halls and hotels by the thousands: college hockey fans, Finnish Americans, sleep researchers, snowmobile salesmen, Irish dance teachers and costumed Darth Vaders and Batmans.
Minneapolis marked a record-setting year for events in 2014, taking in the most revenue ever at the city-owned convention center and filling hotel rooms across downtown. The city hosted a record 534 meetings and conventions, including some events that captured considerable attention. July’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game brought an estimated 46,700 people, while youth and college sports events attracted tens of thousands more.
But much of the traffic generated by Meet Minneapolis, the city’s convention and visitors organization, is far less high-profile. Last year, hundreds of thousands of people packed the Minneapolis Convention Center, the Target Center and nearby hotels for conventions and events that ranged from FinnFest (a gathering of more than 10,000 people with ties to or interest in Finland), to the national meeting of the American Professional Sleep Societies (SLEEP 2014), to Wizard World Comic Con, which drew thousands of sci-fi and fantasy fans and William Shatner.
Melvin Tennant, Meet Minneapolis’ president and CEO, said the gatherings of electricians, weapons collectors and school portrait photographers help fill hotels, restaurants and shops. That generates a significant amount of economic activity in the city, including some of the traffic that keeps more than 31,000 people employed in the hospitality business.
“The city of Minneapolis has a tremendous investment in public facilities — the city owns the convention center, the city owns the Target Center, the city has a major investment in the new Vikings stadium,” Tennant said. “And I think the public is looking for a return on that investment.”
Revenue from hospitality taxes paid by visitors will be directed to help pay for the new stadium beginning in 2021.
Most of the big events that end up on the convention center’s calendar are booked years in advance. Already, Meet Minneapolis is lining up agreements for 2021 and beyond.
To catch the interest of organizations that hold conventions, Meet Minneapolis sends its staff to events across the country — particularly to conventions of people who plan conventions. Securing a big gathering of meeting planners is considered a major coup, since the attendees are likely to pitch Minneapolis as a destination to their groups.
Last year, the city hosted more than 3,000 people for Meeting Professionals International’s World Education Congress, which Tennant considered a “big win.”
“It has really already begun to pay dividends,” he said. “A number of leads and prospects were generated as a result of the [event].”
Event planners say they make their choices based on who they hope to attract, where other meetings are located and how many hotels are available nearby, among a long list of other factors.
Judy McClain, senior manager of meeting planning for the American Payroll Association, said her group typically picks destinations on the East or West Coast for its annual meeting (“the premier payroll event of the year”). But she said her group was sold on Minneapolis because of its walkability, the number of airlines that service the area and the ease of the skyway system in case of bad weather.
More than 3,000 people attended her group’s event in May.
“If we have a good experience at one location we’ll definitely be going back,” she said. “And we had a very good experience at the Minneapolis Convention Center.”
This year’s lineup includes the National Senior Games, which the city projects will bring in about 35,000 people, another round of Comic Con, a gluten-free food allergy fest, national gatherings of English teachers, crop scientists, Presbyterian women, black journalists and hair stylists and an estimated 3,400 fans of the television show “Supernatural.”
Tennant said he expects the upward trend in meeting and hotel bookings that began a few years ago to continue.
Meet Minneapolis reported a citywide hotel occupancy rate of 72 percent in both 2013 and 2014, up from a low of 59 percent in 2009 and in line with pre-recession rates. He said an occupancy rate of at least 70 percent is considered “healthy.”
Dan McElroy, president and CEO of Hospitality Minnesota, said 2014 was a particularly strong year because of the mix of events held in Minneapolis. Youth sports events drew families that stayed and shopped at the Mall of America, while the Shriners International conference was good news for restaurants. The All-Star Game, meanwhile, pushed regular business travelers out of downtown and into suburban hotels, generating more business outside the city.
“Not every year is going to be as good as 2014,” he said. “A lot of my members who get judged by year-over-year performance are really worried because it’s going to be a tough act to follow.”