Conventions Drive Long Beach’s Hospitality and Tourism Economy 

When visitors come to a convention on Long Beach’s waterfront, they also go out to dinner after with friends at nearby restaurants, shop for gifts to bring home, stay overnight at hotels, and rent bicycles to pedal up the beach path. When they like what they see, they may schedule a return trip with the whole family.

Hospitality and tourism is the second-largest job sector in Long Beach and an industry that — pre-pandemic — was estimated to generate $1.8 billion in economic impact annually, according to an independent study conducted by Los Angeles-based Beacon Economics. 

“Convention business is 100% important to Long Beach — it brings people to the city and highlights what we have here,” said Imran Ahmed, general manager of the Long Beach Marriott. 

When he thinks about how visitors to Long Beach’s Convention & Entertainment Center impact the local economy, Ahmed uses an analogy: “When you’re traveling, and you forget your phone charger, and you go into the store and buy a new one, you see other things you want. I’ve never gone into a store for a charger and come out with just a charger.”

Long Beach jobs supported by the hospitality and tourism industry.

But the city has been forced to make due without conventions for more than a year now due to coronavirus and regulations that have limited gatherings as a way to prevent the spread of the deadly virus. 

“Convention business is integral to our business,” Imran said. “It’s been a very trying year, and the only thing the city can do to help us is to convince the governor to open small conventions and restaurants again to start employing people and generating business and getting the economic engine moving.”

When gatherings do resume, Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau President and CEO Steve Goodling and his staff have banded together with the California Convention Center Coalition in a commitment to maintain necessary safety protocols. He said they want to be ready to offer hybrid digital options, too, and rebuild one of the most critical cogs keeping Long Beach’s economic engine turning.

And he noted that beyond the financial implications, the industry-leading Convention Center is at the heart of Long Beach’s downtown, a vital cultural hub where young ballerinas, violinists and race car drivers are inspired to one day take that stage for themselves.

The tourism sector of the state’s economy accounted for $66.1 billion in direct spending and 457,000 jobs in 2019, according to the Coalition formed this year by 130 frustrated industry leaders calling on Governor Gavin Newsom to issue statewide guidelines clarifying under what conditions business meetings and events can resume in California.

in local labor income from the hospitality and tourism industry.

The Coalition, in a letter sent to Newsom earlier this month, stated that California is losing business and jobs to other states — not just today but even in 2022 and beyond — because of the uncertainty. 

“For every month California delays opening for business meetings and events, the state is losing $4.1 billion in economic activity,” the group stated, based on studies from Oxford Economics.

Tourism and labor officials in the Coalition said the governor’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy makes no mention of business meetings, events and conventions. Potential clients looking to book events in California could see that as a signal that California is closed indefinitely.

“Every day I’m on the phone with someone trying to convince them to not cancel and take their business to another state,” Goodling said, emphasizing that convention clients plan months ahead, and will begin canceling events this fall if they aren’t reassured soon.

“We need the governor to provide guidelines to signal to our customers that California will one day be open to hosting events. We want the jobs and revenue here in California, not other states,” he said. 

“If we don’t get advance guidance from Sacramento then, when we are told we can reopen, there will be nothing to open to,” he added. “We will not be a piston in the engine for economic recovery for Long Beach or the state.”

in local economic impact from the hospitality and tourism industry.

Bringing conventions back is also about creating jobs. Hospitality and tourism is second only to health care in terms of employment in Long Beach. Trade and transportation make up the third largest category.

Before the pandemic, the hospitality and tourism industry supported 18,652 jobs, 15,000 of which were supported by direct visitor spending; 1,599 supported by indirect spending; and 2,053 supported by induced spending, which is spending by individuals or households caused by increased earnings linked to the direct and indirect spending, according to Beacon.

About one-quarter of total visitor spending at that time was spent on food services. Accommodation spending accounted for the second largest percentage of total visitor spending at 22.4%, followed by entertainment at 14.2%, transportation at 14% and retail at 12.7%. 

And, visitors in Long Beach keep the city’s coffers full. City officials said transient occupancy tax generated by overnight visitors at hotels is the fourth-largest tax revenue generator in Long Beach.

Long Beach City Councilwoman Cindy Allen, representing District 2, maintains that the city and its small businesses have come to rely on hospitality and tourism.

“These business owners wagered their futures on our active convention center and tourist traffic, and had until COVID-19 been growing due to the increased vitality downtown, largely driven by our successful convention attraction,” Allen said.

“Until conventions are set to return, their ability to plan and budget for the future is uncertain,” she said. “We must find a way to restore a sense of predictability and certainty to enable these businesses to thrive, and that rests on reopening our convention center, restoring lost contracts there, and getting back to the incredible partnerships between conventions, hotels, eateries, and shopping retailers that drove Long Beach’s wonderful, increasing vitality one year ago.” 

Downtown Long Beach Alliance Board Chair Alan Pullman, a founding principal at Studio One Eleven, said downtown foot traffic has slowed during the pandemic, despite attempts to activate outdoor areas for patio dining. When it’s safe to do so, Pullman said street life must resume if jobs are to return — with conventions being part of that equation.

“The most attractive thing for people is other people,” he said. “When you are in a downtown that is vibrant, people are always on the sidewalks and going to events. It feels safe. It’s enticing. It attracts more people. A downtown without any foot traffic feels a little dead and is not attractive to anyone. We had a really nice downtown, and we are really looking forward to regaining that.”

Our hospitality workers are the heart of our local economy.

Restaurateur Michael Dene of Michael’s on Naples and Michael’s Pizzeria said tourism generated by conventions and big events are part of a cycle that drives the development of the food business and pushes up the standard of quality — putting Long Beach on foodies’ culinary map.

Businessman Terry Antonelli, owner of L’Opera on Pine Avenue and longtime CVB board member, said there must be a healthy tourism industry to bring back the Long Beach economy post-pandemic. He hasn’t yet reopened his Italian restaurant but hopes the situation with COVID-19 continues to improve enough so that he can soon welcome back customers and all of the employees who used to work there.

“We’ve been here for more than 30 years and have a national reputation, so L’Opera is something people come back over and over again for when they’re visiting — the conventions are huge for us,” he said. “I think we will get a run of business from pent-up demand when we first open, but then business is going to be off a bit until the conventions are back to hitting their stride.”

Parkers’ Lighthouse General Manager David Maskello noted that trade show and special event visitors regularly book out all or part of Parkers’ for private banquets, which has become a dependable revenue stream for the fine dining restaurant.

“The CVB brings so many eyes into Long Beach and Parkers’ Lighthouse,” he said. “I cannot tell you how many times someone tells us they were here for a convention last year and have come back for vacation because they wanted to bring their family back.”

Maintaining Long Beach’s reputation as a destination — with the cornerstone of that return on investment coming from the Convention Center — is a priority for city leaders, said Public Works Director Eric Lopez. 

The hospitality and tourism industry is at the center of Long Beach.

The Convention Center has benefited from approximately $65 million in public-facing renovations and ongoing improvements over the past decade to create industry-pioneering new event spaces and flexible solutions for convention guests and visitors.

“It’s been transformed into a place where people want to go,” Lopez said, crediting the award-winning CVB staff and the Convention Center operator ASM Global with helping the city invest in the right areas to keep Long Beach at the forefront of the industry. “It’s really a space that is memorable that people talk about long after their convention or special event brought them here.”

Behind the scenes, a longer-term problem — the need for reinvestment in facility maintenance — does lurk outside public view for the massive facility, which includes an arena, grand ballroom, multiple theaters, meeting rooms, exhibit halls, indoor and outdoor spaces, with some of those spaces currently being used for vaccination distribution.

“It’s a really large, vast facility that requires ongoing reinvestment,” Lopez said, with city officials identifying roughly $85 million needed to address some deferred maintenance on out of public view systems and machinery long-past their lifespans.

The city also soon will hear a request from the CVB to invest $1.25 million in economy recovery marketing. And beyond that, the city, which is finishing up beach facility renovations this summer, is already committed to developing a 13-acre parking lot adjacent to the Long Beach Area unofficially known as the “elephant lot” from the days of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as well as identifying “8 by 28” projects as development priorities for the 2028 Olympics.

“The investment into hospitality and leisure, including the convention center, is more than worth the return, Goodling said, “When we came out of the recession, when you look at the TOT revenue, it almost goes straight up — it looks like Bitcoin stock.”