AUSTIN (KXAN) — Industry critics are questioning the accuracy of the Austin Convention Center’s attendance numbers. KXAN Investigates took a closer look, as City Council awaits the results of a comprehensive report it commissioned from the University of Texas.
The study is examining different scenarios for what a proposed $600 million dollar convention center expansion, using public, hotel tax dollars, could look like.
More than a year ago, KXAN Investigates revealed the center had yet to hit attendance numbers projected more than 20 years ago in a consultant report.
This is all about taking a closer look at how the convention center is performing. A convention center that brings in visitors and boosts Austin’s economy. KXAN requested the city’s attendance numbers for every event from last year, and so far this year. What stuck out, is the fact that nearly all of the figures appear to be estimates, rather than final attendance. Yet the city only indicates 7 of the more than 100 events as being estimated attendance numbers.
“It’s a crucial question,” Heywood Sanders, professor of public administration at the University of Texas in San Antonio and author of Convention Center Follies said. “Because we’re trying to assess, how well is this center doing?”
Sanders took a fresh look at the latest numbers KXAN requested.
“If you look at what the event organizers say and you look at what the center puts out – they’re not the same,” Sanders said.
KXAN quickly found some examples.
The Austin Convention Center reported the 2017 Design Automation Conference as having 8,000 attendees. An audit of the event shows actual attendance was just under 5,000.
City records for the 2017 Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) Convention indicate attendance was 13,000. Through organizers, KXAN learned the number actually registered was about 2,000 less, at 11,138.
In a statement, TCEA said:
“We generally report an expected attendance of 13,000. In our final numbers we don’t track those that attend that are not officially registered. However, all events report differently. Some conventions report press, volunteers, students, staff, exhibit hall personnel, complimentary invitations, local guest attendance, and others that are not necessarily full conference participants as part of their final attendance. When booking the convention center, depending on the year and the destination, we indicate an attendance of 13,000-15,000 so they can plan adequately for all bodies present, including those mentioned above and not tracked.”
Then, in 2017, the city had Rooster Teeth’s RTX convention at 21,650 attendees. In 2018, that number appeared to triple to 65,000. Checking in with organizers, that second number, is actually a turnstile estimate rather than ticket sales. That means if an attendee walks in and out five times, they’re counted five times.
When asked why this matters, Sanders told KXAN, “This is a public investment. This is hundreds of millions of public dollars.”
He went on to say, “if they estimate them, then they need to be clear about estimating them.”
Plus, Sanders says there’s another thing to consider.
“How many of those are actually visitors to Austin and how many of those folks are actually here? And again, that’s a crucial question. It really is.”
That’s because visitors stay in hotels, and in doing so, contribute to the hotel occupancy tax the convention center, cultural arts programs, and historical preservation all benefit from in Austin.
But when KXAN asked for a breakdown, the city said, “The Convention Center does not track attendee information and would be unable to provide a count of how many were considered out-of-state.”
“If those numbers are juiced or fudged or unreasonably high, I’m sorry, we’re getting the wrong picture,” Sanders said. “You need to check. You need to keep the managers and the public officials honest.”
Sanders take, is that city leaders talking about expanding the convention center need to ask: Is this the best use of visitor tax dollars?
“It’s a question for everybody, every citizen in this community who cares about its future.”
In response to this story, the convention center simply told us it receives estimated attendance from clients to help plan for the events.
“We receive estimated attendance from clients during the planning stages. This is necessary in planning the events, determining the space needed, the set-ups, etc. It is also beneficial in helping our community and local businesses (restaurants, venues, shops, transportation companies, etc.) anticipate and plan for an influx of visitors/participants,” Paul Barnes, Deputy Director – Chief Operations Officer for the convention center department said.
KXAN is pressing to learn more about why its final numbers differ from the organizer’s, why they were not labeled as estimates, and what more can be done to assure more accurate reporting.
From 2017, through the end of August this year, the city’s convention and visitor’s bureau says the attendees it brought in, resulted in a nearly $423 million estimated economic impact to our community.
Visit Austin says we’re losing out on an even bigger economic impact if we don’t expand the convention center. It says it’s having to turn away business because the convention center is already booked or doesn’t have the space.
Last year, the Visitor Impact Task Force backed that idea, recommending to expand the convention center with a 2-percent hotel tax hike. But council pumped the brakes in December, commissioning UT’s School of Architecture to gather stakeholder input, look at square footage, the cost of construction, and conduct an operational economic analysis.
A final report is expected late fall.