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Can St. Louis better compete with Denver, Nashville when it comes to convention business?

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Steve O'Laughlin and Kitty Ratcliffe of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, discuss the costs and benefits of marketing St. Louis to conventions.

When it comes to marketing downtown St. Louis to visiting conventions, the area has a steep hill to climb. An aging/outdated convention center, losing an NFL team, scarce financial resources, a fear of increased taxes and a perceived safety problem are all roadblocks to bringing visitors into St. Louis for conventions.

Kitty Ratcliffe, the president of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, says that the investment in monetary resources and time it takes to overcome the roadblocks are worth it.

"It is about a $5 billion industry,” Ratcliffe said. “That's new money that comes into our community annually."

Earlier this month, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran an article delving into the money spent to bring big-time conventions and meeting groups to St. Louis. It was entitled “Cities spend millions of dollars a year to lure conventions. Is it worth it?”

For Ratcliffe, the answer is, emphatically, “yes.”

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh discussed the costs and benefits of marketing St. Louis to conventions with Ratcliffe and Steve O’Laughlin, a commissioner of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission and president of Lodging Hospitality Management about marketing St. Louis to such conventions.

Now that the Rams have left the city and the Edward Jones Dome, Ratcliffe and O’Laughlin hope to ignite the public’s good will in upgrading the convention center and its connection to the stadium. The original convention center was built in 1977 and while the stadium was built in the ‘90s, the connection between the two could be better integrated.

Over the past five years, little money has gone to doing so because of efforts to satisfy a clause in the Rams’ lease to make improvements on the football end of things.

“Our facility isn’t quite stacking up anymore,” Ratcliffe said.

There are currently three plans for improving the convention center and it would cost between $350 million-$450 million to improve the aesthetics and fulfill some of the needs conventioneers highlighted in a recent survey regarding meeting spaces, ballrooms, loading docks and exhibition space.

“When they come in and compare our convention center to Nashville and Denver, those are things that we need to work on,” O’Laughlin said.

Part of those upgrades could be funded through a hotel tax but public funding is also being sought from the city, county and state.

During the discussion, opinions swirled on Twitter in regard to the best way to market downtown St. Louis — be it to conventioneers or other visitors. In some cases, people didn’t think upgrading the convention center alone would be enough to draw people downtown. 

Other ideas for marketing St. Louis better to visitors included reinstating film tax credits and finding a way to upgrade the “prestige” of moving a company downtown. Whatever the method, it is going to take quite an investment.

“It is as competitive as any other business and St. Louis is our product,” Ratcliffe said. “We just have to figure out how to market our product, how to sell our product, what kind of deals you have to offer … it’s why businesses have sales, it is why you negotiate on everything when you go to buy a car, every customer expects to negotiate when they walk into our store.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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