Who To Watch: John Chan

John Chan
Interim Director
Phoenix Convention Center

Despite a slumping economy, the newly expanded Phoenix Convention Center experienced a phenomenon expressed some years ago in a movie — “If you build it they will come.”

Indeed, convention delegates came in record numbers in 2009, attracted by the usual Phoenix amenities, including weather and reasonable prices. A new attraction was the convention center itself, which underwent a $600 million expansion project that was completed in December 2008, and tripled the size of meeting and exhibition space.

But John Chan, interim director of the Phoenix Convention Center, sees the recession taking a bite out of convention business in 2010. Looking ahead, Chan says the industry is moving into a tentative mode. Some groups are delaying making decisions on conventions because they don’t have a firm count on delegates. Businesses are deciding to send fewer people, and convention planners are opting against adding an extra day for a possible trip to the Grand Canyon, Chan says.

Still, Chan thinks the scheduled opening in mid-2010 of nearby CityScape, a multiuse project of restaurants and retail amenities that convention delegates always look for, and the existence of light rail service, will make Phoenix that much more desirable — even as the recession puts a crimp in business travel.

“We opened the new convention center during this down economy, and yet, during the last fiscal year we welcomed record numbers of convention delegates into the building,” Chan says. “The reason — most of the business was booked two to three years ago, while it was still under construction.”

In addition, the 1,000-room Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel opened one block from the center.

“Those two events merged to set the stage for the current fiscal year,” Chan says.

Last fiscal year, which ended June 30, saw 276,000 convention delegates enter the center, compared to only 104,000 the previous year, a rousing 160 percent increase.

In a sign that the struggling economy won’t negatively impact the convention industry as much as some fear, in the first three months of the current fiscal year the center already had received 220,000 visitors. Healthy numbers were spurred by major conventions held by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Best Western International, and a volleyball festival. Best Western held a dinner for 2,400, and earlier, the National Rifle Association staged a banquet for 6,000, the largest sit-down dinner ever in Arizona, according to Chan.

He credits the surge in attendance to the expanded convention center’s ability to provide space for groups of 10,000 to 15,000. What’s more, the design of the building enables the city to host several conventions and groups simultaneously. The Phoenix Convention Center has nearly 900,000 square feet of rentable space and a total of more than 2 million square feet. The increased size has moved Phoenix from the 69th-largest convention center in the U.S. to the top 20.

“It is definitely meeting our expectations,” says Chan, who previously served as Downtown Development Director for the city of Phoenix. “We’re able to host groups we were not able to handle before expansion, and they’re talking about coming back — getting them as part of the rotation. That speaks to good customer service and the quality of food and beverage. It has really put Phoenix on the map of the meeting/planning industry.”

www.phoenix.gov/conventioncenter

Arizona Business Magazine

January 2010

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About Don Harris

Don Harris is a freelance writer in Phoenix who reports on a variety of business-related topics. He also serves as copy editor/reporter for Arizona Capitol Times. Immediately prior to joining the Capitol Times in 2001, for nearly nine years Harris was a public information officer for two state of Arizona agencies, first with the Department of Commerce and then the Department of Insurance. Harris also covered politics, organized labor and general news events for The Arizona Republic for 19 years, periodically serving as an assistant city editor. At The Republic, Harris covered the Arizona House of Representatives for 10 years, as well as five national political conventions and most major Arizona political races. He has received several journalism awards in Arizona and Chicago, where he had been a reporter for a daily newspaper for a number of years.