The World Leisure Congress not only failed to provide a revised number of guests to Mobile for its first meeting on U.S. soil, but the city was left responsible for a $125,000 bill after the event left town.
Promoters for the event, which took place early last month, initially promised 4,500 visitors from 60 countries, before revising the expectations to about 500 visitors in mid August. Actual estimates suggest the number of attendees to the congress didn’t even reach that number.
“Four hundred attendees came in representing 60 countries,” Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Al Hutchinson said. “They picked up 690 hotel room nights.”
In addition, Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s Chief of Staff Colby Cooper said the city was left with a $125,000 left to pay to speakers at the week-long event. The CVB and the city spent more than $300,000 to woo the congress to Mobile, Hutchison said.
“I think it speaks for itself,” Cooper said of attendance. “We aim at doing much better in the future.”
Both Hutchinson and Cooper said a better vetting process would take place for events in the future. Hutchison suggested looking at an event’s success rate the three previous years before making a commitment. Cooper said the administration would “do our homework before we commit” in the future.
“There’s a commitment by the administration to make sure wild sales pitches are better studied,” Cooper said.
Hutchinson noted that one benefit was to three University of South Alabama students, who landed internships with universities in the Netherlands, Hungary and China. Three other students, including two internationals, have also committed to internships with USA, Hutchinson added.
“Overall, I thought the numbers were less than anticipated, but there were a lot of positive takeaways,” he said.
Former Mayor Mike Dow, who was chairman of the World Leisure Congress, said he had been to two previous congresses – one in Shanghai, China and the other in Italy – and each had “large crowds and great attendance.” He admitted the attendance at Mobile’s congress wasn’t great. Dow said the attendance was lacking because the U.S. branch of the World Leisure Organization has its own conventions each year.
“Those people who attended those separate conventions did not come to the World Leisure Congress,” Dow said.
The city did have some gains because of the congress, Dow said, claiming more than 300 scholarly papers were written about it and many international visitors were introduced to the USA campus.
“I think it was worth doing,” he said. “We would’ve liked to have made a small fortune off of people who came, but that didn’t happen. I felt the 300 people and the publicity was beneficial.”
As chairman of the committee, Dow said he wasn’t paid for his time. Hutchinson, who joined MBCVB in July, confirmed that Dow wasn’t paid and hasn’t been paid by CVB.
While attendance at the congress was less than expected, a speaker at the event got the attention of the Mobile Downtown Alliance.
One of the keynote speakers, Andrés Duany, will be back in Mobile soon to pilot a program that may limit restrictions owners face when renovating historic buildings, Alliance Communications Director Carol Hunter said. To simplify it, Hunter said historic districts could become “pink zones” to indicate a reduction in red tape.
Through the program, the city will bring in a consultant to look at building codes and fire codes to see what can be changed or relaxed in order to encourage development of historic buildings.
The congress ran from Sunday, Sept. 7 to Friday, Sept. 12 and covered the topics of health and wellness, economic development, environmental stewardship, emerging technologies, building a liveable city and arts, culture, sports and recreation.
The conference featured guest speakers including Stimpson, former U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and others. Keynote speakers for the event were former Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, U.S. Travel Association CEO Roger Dow, CauseCentric Founder Celine Couseau, Duany, trend expert Daniel Levine, urban designer and architect Anthony Vanky and Greater China for Guinness World Records Limited President Rowan Simons.