Wal-Mart pulls annual convention from Kansas City

Wednesday, June 25, 2008 | 4:42 p.m. CDT; updated 1:14 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

KANSAS CITY — Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is planning to move its annual national managers meeting from Kansas City, taking away the city’s largest annual convention.

The retail giant told city officials Tuesday that it was backing out of an informal promise to hold the meeting in Kansas City through 2012. Scheduled for two weeks in January, the meeting was expected to attract 8,000 people and generate almost $8 million in revenue for the local economy next year.

Convention officials laid most of the blame on the supply of hotel rooms downtown, which they said was no longer able to host large events. They said some Wal-Mart attendees were being placed in hotels 25 miles away from the Bartle Hall convention center.

Officials said they figured Wal-Mart would back out before 2012 but believed they had at least one more year.

“We thought we had them in ‘09,” Bill Lucas, the Kansas City Convention and Visitors Association chairman, told convention association board members Tuesday. “It’s a blow to the hospitality industry and the food and beverage operations around town.”

Wal-Mart, which has met in Kansas City since 1997, said in a written statement released through the association that it was grateful for the city’s hospitality and would consider holding other gatherings in Kansas City in the future. But it said its mind was made up on moving the managers meeting.

“After thoughtful review of venue options, we’ve informed Kansas City officials that, to better meet the needs of our associates, we will move the annual kickoff meeting to a setting with accommodations that allow for better meeting logistics and additional economies,” the company said.

Local officials estimate Wal-Mart’s annual gatherings have poured about $72 million into the local economy.

Lucas said Wal-Mart’s decision highlights the city’s need to build a new hotel downtown to attract and keep big groups.

Wal-Mart officials agreed.

“If you had a new 1,000-room hotel next to the convention center, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Mark Henneberger, the company’s vice president of shows and events, said in a statement released by the association.

Officials in the hospitality industry have been pressing city leaders for help in developing a large convention hotel downtown, even arguing against approving tax incentives for smaller hotel projects.

Mayor Mark Funkhouser, who has voiced opposition to major financial incentives for a convention hotel, said he was “disappointed” in Wal-Mart’s decision but said there wasn’t a timetable for the City Council to consider the hotel issue.

Wal-Mart hasn’t publicly said where the meeting will go next year, but Lucas said it appeared the company had booked the event on short notice in Orlando, Fla.

The company’s decision was a major setback for those trying to rejuvenate Kansas City’s downtown, which has in the past year seen the opening of the Kansas City Power and Light entertainment district and the Sprint Center arena.

“It came as a big surprise,” said city convention facilities director Oscar McGaskey, who said he had recently toured nearby Kemper Arena with Wal-Mart officials and they appeared agreeable to expanding the annual meeting’s merchandise exhibit to the building for the first time.

Wal-Mart is just the latest convention to bail or strike Kansas City off its short list, most of them because of concerns with downtown hotel space.

SkillsUSA, meeting in Kansas City this week and expected to beat Wal-Mart’s record of 16,600 hotel-room nights, is leaving for Louisville, Ky., in 2015 when its current contract runs out. It has met in Kansas City since 1994.

Earlier this year, Future Farmers of America decided against choosing Kansas City as a finalist for its 2013-2019 convention site list. It moved its annual meeting from Kansas City in 1999 after 71 years.

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