Cities across the country are grappling with socio-economic crises exacerbated by the pandemic, but if going by headlines alone, San Francisco is certainly getting the most heat. The city’s challenges related to homelessness, crime and drugs are part of a combination of factors that are impacting the city’s event business, with a number of big tech conferences announcing historic moves out of the city and to Las Vegas.
Google Cloud Next was the latest, which despite having booked Moscone Center for 2024, has announced the show will be held at Mandalay Bay instead. Dreamforce took place in September as planned, but Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff made headlines when he threatened to move the show in 2024 if the street conditions were not improved.
Some of San Francisco’s struggles are unique, while others are a result of competition. But in this era, event safety and attendee perceptions are critical to the success and continued growth of events that weathered the pandemic recovery period. We hopped on a call with Nicole Rogers, executive vp and chief sales officer for San Francisco Travel, the City and County of San Francisco’s official destination marketing organization, for a lengthy conversation about the realities the city is facing, the event business, and how the city is working to keep events and event attendees safe.
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EVENT MARKETER: WHAT ARE THE TOP ADVANTAGES TO HOSTING A MEETING OR CONFERENCE IN SAN FRANCISCO RIGHT NOW?
NICOLE ROGERS: I think there’s no other city that offers as much diversity and selection. It’s the iconic architecture, the bridges, the bay, the wine country, the mountains. There’s no other city that can get you to all of those places in the same day. But we also have the ability to draw large, if not record-breaking attendance. Even as we sit here now, the last three to four meetings that have been in San Francisco this year have matched their 2019 attendance, which not many meetings and events are doing anywhere in the country, or they’ve broken their all-time records. Many organizations use their annual meeting as a fundraiser also. So, holding a meeting in San Francisco is a draw both financially because of accelerated attendance, and for personal enjoyment in general with all the things to do in San Francisco afterwards.
For hotel options and availability for meeting planners, especially right now, you get to choose from large conference hotels to smaller boutique hotels. They all surround both the Moscone Center and the vibrant neighborhoods that are here, like Union Square. And the hotels are beautiful in San Francisco. I think that we don’t get enough recognition for how most of our hotels are sitting at three to four stars, which is not necessarily the case in most of the other cities that you go to.
Finally, this is something which we’re very proud of, and we seem to have forgotten this lately—sustainability. We still lead the country in sustainability. By the end of this year, Moscone West will join North and South as LEED Platinum, making us the highest scoring LEED Platinum convention center in the world. We think that we’ve talked about that enough, but we’re realizing that we haven’t talked about that enough.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE STATE OF EVENTS IN THE CITY?
Right now I would say it’s growing and it’s getting back to thriving. People forget that we bid on groups every year, so just because a group has been in San Francisco for several years doesn’t guarantee that it’ll be back. What’s changed in the past few years is that other cities have been able to focus on the things that we can’t change easily. We can’t easily change the size of our hotels. Our downtown footprint is what it is. Our cost of labor and benefits are where they are.
Other cities such as Las Vegas are able to compete against the things that we struggle with, which is, if you come to San Francisco, you’re going to need to use 10, 20 or 30 hotels. If you’re a large convention and you go to Las Vegas, you may only have to use two. In the past few years, [other markets] have been able to be more competitive when bidding against us. Events book, they change dates, and then sometimes they cancel as a matter of course. And while we never like to lose a piece of business, if we do, we try to replace that business with another booking.
There’s also no shortage of leads for future dates for us. And I think that’s where there’s a perception that everybody is pulling out of San Francisco. That is not true. We have no issues pulling business in. It’s the short-term cancellations that we’ve had to deal with that are harder for us to replace, because that booking window has passed. But the things that we put in place to capture short-term business have made us get to that point where you would say that we’re thriving. Moscone Center is offering a 25-percent discount off of rentals, and San Francisco Tourism Improvement District’s one-fourth-percent increase takes place in 2024, which will offer additional discounts to Moscone Center rentals. Moscone Center and San Francisco Travel are also working on offsets to security packages that groups traditionally contract. Finally, we have great deals for those that are signing multiyear contracts at one time.
That being said, we’re predicting a 2024 that’s going to be significantly behind where we would be averaging. But then we start to grow once 2025 gets here, and then we grow steadily from that year on.
WHAT IS THE CITY DOING TO MAKE PEOPLE FEEL SAFE AND KEEP EVENTS SAFE?
I don’t think there’s ever been a better coordination between the city of San Francisco, the mayor’s office, the police department and the DA’s office in keeping the city safe. There has been more of a realization in general as to how important conventions, small contained meetings and tourists are to the city, which I don’t think was there prior to the pandemic.
We’ve instituted programs with the help of the city, including a Welcome Ambassador program that’s funded through the city. It’s managed by our association, San Francisco Travel, and it was originally put in place to welcome people back to work from the pandemic. It’s now grown into a program that welcomes our tourists, welcomes our conventioneers and welcomes our locals. These ambassadors are assigned to locations across the city and can answer questions about public transportation or translation requests—we have 20 different languages that are represented. If an event is going to have restaurant events outside of Moscone Center, we make sure that ambassadors line the way to help guide them. San Francisco is one of the safest cities, and the beauty of it is that it’s a walkable city.
We’ve also put in place what we call a city pre-con for all conventions that are at Moscone Center and for groups that are staying within a hotel. We pull in all our groups, from public works to our police departments, to let them know that these groups will be in town and so that they know the schedule and will deploy resources to the streets. Our [city] director of facilities is on-call during events, and we have dedicated street cleaning schedules in place around the event.
I would say there are a lot of misconceptions out there about how safe San Francisco is. We were ranked the 15th safest city in the world—and third in the U.S.—by The Economist. We have very low violent crime rates in comparison to other cities. We do have petty crime and larceny; that is our highest type of crime, and that’s what you hear a lot of stories about. But since 2020, all the numbers have been going down. Believe it or not, even larceny and car break-ins, which is what we get the most publicity about, are going down, though that’s still our highest type of crime that is committed in the city. We hear what everybody’s saying. We know that these are things that every community deals with, but I feel we are going in the right direction in almost every category.
HOW IS THE CITY HELPING MEETING PLANNERS OVERCOME ATTENDEE PERCEPTIONS ABOUT TRAVELING TO AND ATTENDING EVENTS THERE?
We’ve been providing links to our partners throughout the country, our associations, our corporate accounts, that show what the facts are in our Recovery Presentation. We work with our hotels, the business improvement districts and advocacy organizations to address the perceptions that are not accurate. The presentation offers real numbers on homelessness or crime, for example, and compare them to the other top cities in the world. It’s a little bit more targeted and not a “look at how great San Francisco is” presentation, but a, “Hey, here’s the reality of what’s going on.” And underneath that, it’ll list the new initiatives that the mayor has put in, and the success rates we’ve had.
One of the biggest success rates that we had is with staffing our police department. Police department staffing has been a challenge for many cities across the country, and at the beginning of the year, San Francisco was 600 police officers under where we needed to be. This summer, we had the largest graduating class of police officers since 2020. We still have a way to go, but if you talk to any of our attendees that are coming to the city, they now see police officers, and they are able to engage with them. We had Dreamforce, and I saw people taking selfies with police officers right outside, which I’ve never seen before in all the years that I’ve been in the city, which is well over 30 years.
WHAT EVENTS IS THE CITY LOOKING FORWARD TO HEADING INTO 2024 AND BEYOND?
Currently, we have Dreamforce, J.P. Morgan [Healthcare Conference] and RSA Conference annually. We also have Snowflake, a tech conference that had been in Las Vegas previously. They announced they would be coming back to San Francisco for 2024 and 2025. We’re happy to see that we’re starting to grab our tech conferences back. Visa is coming back for 2024, which is a short-term booking, but a phenomenal corporate event that we are looking forward to.
We’re very excited that we also have the Super Bowl coming in 2026. We have a FIFA World Cup coming in 2026. And then we are also out to bid for the NBA All-Star Game in 2025. We have tennis matches, America’s Cup, golf events. So, we’re starting to dominate the sports market because San Francisco drives attendance. Even though 2024 for us looks like it’s going to be down, we’ve had some announcements within the last few months that show that we still have a lot that’s coming back.
Featured Image–Dreamforce attendees outside Moscone Center in 2022. Photo credit: Salesforce