When it was initially proposed, the World Leisure Congress’ first meeting on U.S. soil next month was expected to draw some 4,500 visitors from 60 countries to Mobile. However, new numbers suggest more modest expectations.
Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO Al Hutchinson said now, the organization is hoping to attract 500 delegates to attend from 40 countries and expects about 1,000 hotel room nights to be booked because of the conference.
But with around three weeks before the event starts Sunday, Sept. 7, there are currently only about 300 delegates signed up, Hutchinson said.
Former Mayor Mike Dow, who is chairman of this year’s conference and who championed it coming to Mobile, said the low number could be misleading because not everyone RSVPs for the event.
“What happens in these situations is the RSVP rate is hard to get,” he said. “People don’t RSVP.”
In addition, Dow said there are delegates signed up who will bring three or four people with them.
Wooing the conference to Mobile also took an investment. Hutchinson said since 2010 between $300,000 and $380,000 have been spent to bring the event to the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center. Its economic impact is expected to be around $350,000, he said.
In a different twist, Dow said the city would recoup money from the event’s registration fees, so the goal is to “break even, or make money.”
Those numbers suggest the city may just break even on this year’s conference, but Hutchinson said the event is about more than just money. He said it would also be a good economic development catalyst for the city.
“We’re excited about the money, but we want folks to come back because they had a good time in Mobile,” he said.
Hutchinson joined the MBCVB in July, replacing former President David Randel.
“We think it’s significant to get new people to your destination … and give them a real message for them to go back to their home countries and spread the word,” Hutchinson said.
Dow said while the city is focused on industrial development, the conference was a chance to bolster the tourism industry through the marketing of arts, culture, sporting infrastructure, recreation and attractions.
“We’re trying to get a handle on that to market ourselves to compete with Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans,” he said.
Dow said the World Leisure Organization, which puts on the conference every other year, chose Mobile over Melbourne, Australia because of the BP oil spill and “they wanted to see our recovery and if we could take our tourism industry to a higher level.”
According to its website, the World Leisure Organization “is a worldwide, non-governmental association of persons and organizations dedicated to discovering and fostering those conditions best permitting leisure to serve as a force for human growth, development and well-being.”
The organization believes “access to meaningful leisure experiences is no less than the need for shelter, education, employment and fundamental health care.”
Dow said the oil spill aside, Mobile was still a natural choice for the conference.
“With the bay, the delta and beaches there’s water, water, water everywhere,” Dow said. “You’re looking at where water flows.”
The World Leisure Congress is scheduled to run from Sunday, Sept. 7 to Friday, Sept. 12 and will cover topics like health and wellness, economic development, environmental stewardship, emerging technologies, building a livable city and arts, culture, sports and recreation.
The conference will also include guest speakers including Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson, former U.S. Congressman Jo Bonner, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and others. Keynote speakers include: Former Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, U.S. Travel Association CEO Roger Dow, CauseCentric Founder Celine Cousteau, Congress for the New Urbanism Founder Andres Duany, trend expert Daniel Levine, urban designer and architect Anthony Vanky and Greater China for Guinness World Records Limited President Rowan Simons.