The Knowledge Discovery & Data Mining Conference met in Anchorage August 4-8, 2019. The conference, which expected approximately 1,000 people, topped out at 3,000 attendees.

Kathleen Bonnar | Visit Anchorage

The Knowledge Discovery & Data Mining Conference met in Anchorage August 4-8, 2019. The conference, which expected approximately 1,000 people, topped out at 3,000 attendees.

Kathleen Bonnar | Visit Anchorage

2020 Conventions, Conferences, and Regional Meetings
Business travelers boost Alaska’s economy
By Vanessa Orr

he visitor industry in Alaska encompasses more than seasonal travelers viewing wildlife, exploring the wilderness, or taking in local culture. There are a large number of visitors who come to work, attending meetings and conferences and boosting the economy even though they may not participate in traditional tourism activities.

While 2019 was a good year for conventions and meetings in the Last Frontier, 2020 looks to be strong as well. And this is especially important, considering that these functions help contribute to the state’s bottom line outside of the summer season.

“Meeting and convention attendees are that part of the visitor industry that supports the state in seasons that are not bolstered as much by tourism,” explains Helen Renfrew, director of meetings and conventions for Explore Fairbanks. “Statewide and nationally, meetings tend to peak in the spring and fall, and this additional occupancy helps to support the industry as a whole as an economic driver.

“Not only do hotels, meeting spaces, and restaurants benefit, but so do gas stations, grocery stores, museums, gift shops, coffee shops—you name it. Direct tourism dollars have a wide reach in the community,” she adds. “And when visitors spend money, they have an indirect impact as well—the businesses that serve them buy food from wholesalers or send rugs out for cleaning, and their employees spend money on babysitters.”

The McDowell Group’s Economic Impact Report December 2018 found that conferences in Juneau, for example, had the following economic impact: Conference attendees spent an average of $1,270 per event and stayed an average of four nights; conference organizations spent an average of $450 for each attendee, per event.

“Conferences and meetings provide the highest return, more than independent travelers and cruise guests,” says Vicki Logan, convention sales manager at Travel Juneau. “And the money they spend not only benefits Juneau but all of Southeast. When you bring in revenue from outside of Juneau or outside of the state, it has a circle effect. A lot of people don’t realize the impact that it has on the whole community.”

Who’s Coming in 2020?

Convention and meeting numbers look good for 2020, with a range of organizations, both in-state and out-of-state, flocking to Anchorage, Juneau, and Fairbanks.

According to Julie Dodds, vice president of convention sales for Visit Anchorage, convention sales for the last four to five years have been very strong, with 2019 culminating in one of the strongest years ever.

“We had four really large conventions that all outperformed what was expected,” she says. “The National Veterans Golden Age Games estimated 1,200 people and had 2,000. The Association for Computing Machinery’s Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining Conference was expecting 1,000 people and ended up with more than 3,000. The American Ornithological Society attracted 1,038 attendees, though regular attendance is usually about 500 people.”

She adds that the Agriculture, Food & Human Values Society also had almost 300 more attendees than expected.

While Dodds says that it’s hard to increase numbers year after year, in 2020 Anchorage is expecting about the same amount of business visitors.

“We’ve got a couple of really good international groups coming, including Rotary International Zones 28 & 32, which is expected to bring about 400 people to its symposium, Life on Land, and the International Pacific Halibut Commission will bring approximately 275 people to town.”

Anchorage will also host the Botanical Society of America, which is expected to draw 1,200 people.

While state meetings have trailed off over the past couple of years, Visit Anchorage has seen an increase in American Indian/Alaska Native organization-based conferences, with three events scheduled for 2020. The National Congress of American Indians will bring 1,400 people to town, and the National Indian Health Board will host 700. The Alaska Federation of Natives Conference, the largest annual representative gathering of Native peoples in the country, is expected to host upward of 3,500 people.

When this many people come to town, it benefits everyone, from select service hotels in midtown to florists making banquet centerpieces. And the money doesn’t just stay in Alaska’s largest city.

“When people come to Alaska, they tend to come in earlier and stay longer,” says Dodds, “If they only come for one or two days, they’ll probably just stay in Anchorage and take day trips; but if they’re using a good chunk of vacation time, they may go up to Denali or travel to Homer. A convention in Anchorage benefits the whole state because while visitors may be coming for work, they’re staying for personal time.”

Over the past five years, Dodds says that the Estimated Direct Attendee Spending (EDAS) has been between $95 million and $100 million, and the outlook for 2020 and 2021 is similar.

“Estimated Direct Attendee Spending for the National Congress of American Indians is estimated at $2.2 million, and the Alaska Federation of Natives is $3.6 million,” says Dodds. “The National Indian Health Board will bring in approximately $1.2 million, and the Botanical Society of America’s EDAS is $1.9 million.”

The Rotary International Symposium in December will pump another $528,000 into the economy, and the International Pacific Halibut Commission’s conference in February is estimated to bring in $320,000.

Juneau is also looking at a good year, especially when it comes to in-state conferences. Groups traveling to the capital city this year include competitors in the ASAA Debate Drama Forensics Alaska State Tournament, the Alaska Republican Party, and guests of Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Celebration.

“The ASAA state tournament will be held for the first time ever in Juneau, with high school kids coming from all over the state for the competition,” says Logan of the February event, which is expected to have an estimated economic impact (EEI) of $412,000. “This is a great opportunity for Thunder Mountain High School, which is the host.”

The Alaska Republican Party will hold its convention in early April in Centennial Hall and is expected to attract 300 attendees, with an EEI of $275,000. “The number of participants may be even higher since it’s a presidential election year,” says Logan.

A session at the 2019 Alaska Travel Industry Association Annual Convention and Trade Show at Centennial Hall in Juneau.

Travel Juneau

Session at the 2019 Alaska Travel Industry Association Annual Convention and Trade Show
A session at the 2019 Alaska Travel Industry Association Annual Convention and Trade Show at Centennial Hall in Juneau.

Travel Juneau

Celebration, which is held every other year, is always well-attended. Approximately 600 to 700 people are expected at the June event that celebrates Native culture, with an estimated economic impact of $9.1 million.

The Pacific Northwest Library Association Conference will also be convening in Juneau in August, for an EEI of $343,500. In addition to a number of smaller state meetings, the Pioneers of Alaska Grand Igloo Convention, which happens every other year, will be in held in Juneau in September.

As far as trends go, Logan says that because of the travel freeze at the state level for the past several years, some agencies have begun meeting in different ways, including via Skype and other technology. “Some larger groups are not meeting yearly anymore, and some are still having meetings but renting smaller spaces as opposed to the convention center since fewer people are able to come,” she says.

“We’re filling in those vacancies with regional meetings and association meetings, though it takes a little more energy on our part to find groups looking for meeting locations,” she adds. “It takes a few more ‘no’s to get to a ‘yes.’”

While historically about 60 percent of meetings in Fairbanks are statewide, some regional and international organizations will be making their way to the Golden Heart City in 2020.

“In February, the State High School Division II Hockey Championships will be in Fairbanks, and we’re pretty excited because we haven’t had hockey championships in the city for sixteen years,” says Renfrew, who adds that Explore Fairbanks is purposefully targeting school event associations. The tournament is expected to have an EDAS of $500,000.

In March, the University of Alaska Fairbanks will be hosting the One Health, One Future Conference that is expected to attract 500 attendees with an EDAS of $1 million.

“The conference focuses on the interconnectedness of the circumpolar north and will host a combination of biologists, human social service professionals, and medical and veterinary service professionals,” says Renfrew. “The concept is that humans, animals, and the environment all have to do well to support the others. If the environment is not doing well, it can’t support humans or animals; if the animals aren’t doing well, they can’t support humans or the environment.”

The Alaska Association of American Fisheries will bring about 200 people to Fairbanks in March with an EDAS of $192,000, followed by the Alaska Association of Fire and Arson Investigators in April, which is expected to bring about 40 people to town. In May, about 350 people are expected in Fairbanks for the Alaska Democratic Party State Convention, with an EDAS of $250,000.

“In June we’ll be hosting the 44th Annual National Indian Timber Symposium, which is an event that we’ve not hosted before,” says Renfrew, adding that the conference came through a connection with the Tanana Chiefs Conference. Approximately 300 people are expected to attend with an EDAS of $360,000.

Fairbanks’ convention staff has bids in for a couple of other fall meetings, including the International Boreal Forest Research Association and the International Circumpolar Remote Sensing Symposium. Both conventions could bring another 100 to 200 people to town.

“The calendar will grow as we get closer to 2020; as a destination marketing organization, we help with bids and research, but some meeting arrangements are made by local organizing committees, and we don’t get involved until later when they are looking for volunteer help, signage, or promotion materials,” says Renfrew. “There’s still more to come; we’ll be selling from next week until however long out they want to plan.”

The Alaska Travel Industry Association conference opening reception at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau.

Travel Juneau

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The Alaska Travel Industry Association conference opening reception at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau.

Travel Juneau

While Renfrew says that 2020 will be a healthy conference year, it probably won’t match 2019. “We had a slamming busy year,” she says of a conference schedule that saw both the First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference and the Alaska Federation of Natives’ annual convention happening in the same October week. “We were also on some organizations’ rotational schedules, which adds to our visitor total.”

While convention planners are still filling up 2020, they are also working on getting meetings on the books for 2021 and 2022.

“We have a lot of bids out at this point,” says Dodds. “Conventions are incredibly important to Anchorage. While other parts of the economy, like mining, oil, and fishing, may be in flux, we’re a bright, shiny penny. There’s still strong interest in Alaska nationally and internationally, which helps us remain a positive economic driver for the state.”