Crowds of spray-foam housing contractors swarmed the Espee where a DJ, under multicolored disco lighting, sang hits by Alan Jackson and the song Barbie by Danish pop group Aqua.
“Sprayfoam Worldwide!” shouted the DJ, announcing an after party at 1902 Nightclub. Horse-drawn carriages lined the street to take participants to new destinations.
For those across the street, the Tuesday night revelry in the historic square might have looked like a rowdy wedding. Corn hoteliers, restaurateurs, bar owners and anyone with a stake in the economy of downtown San Antonio have heard the sound of money from all over the country pouring into the city. It’s a sound that died down at the start of the pandemic, and its return is being welcomed as another sign of the pandemic’s loosening grip on the city’s tourism economy.
The 2022 SprayFoam Convention and Expo, billed as “the nation’s largest annual event dedicated to all things spray polyurethane foam,” is the latest gathering of business at the Henry B. González Convention Center. (The after-hours celebration at the Espee was an unofficial addendum to a day’s program of keynote speeches, certification exams, exhibitions and a golf tournament).
Business conventions like SprayFoam 2022 are the cornerstone of downtown San Antonio’s hospitality industry during the dull days Monday through Thursday, bridging the gap between weekend visitors. They also allow hotels to inflate their room reservations during the winter and spring months, before the arrival of summer tourists.
“Downtown hotels thrive on this type of business,” said Paul Vaughn, senior vice president of Source Strategies, a San Antonio-based hotel consulting group.
Prior to During the pandemic, group bookings like these conventions accounted for about 40% of business at the Hilton Palacio del Rio, located across South Alamo Street from the city’s convention center, hotel manager Robert Thrailkill said.
But those conventions largely evaporated at the start of the pandemic and have since hesitantly returned – far more slowly than the dramatic rejuvenation of leisure tourism – amid spikes in variants, year-long business planning cycles and growing comfort in the white-collar world with Zoom meetings replacing expensive mass gatherings.
Smaller conventions have returned faster than larger conventions, which are typically scheduled and canceled months in advance, Thrailkill said, but he hasn’t seen any new cancellations in months. “It’s getting better, and we’re moving forward, not backward.”
Hotel revenues reflect the continued decline in congress activity. According to Source Strategies, accommodation revenue for hotels in the city is growing, but is still lagging 2019. Hotels in San Antonio brought in $1.2 billion in Q4 2021, a dramatic increase from 2020 but nearly 10% behind Q4 2019. A just under 5% fewer hotel rooms were sold in the fourth quarter of 2021 compared to the last quarter of 2019.
Last summer, hundreds of canceled conventions cost the city about $475 million in economic losses. Since then, new bookings have steadily increased, although far from pre-pandemic levels. The city-owned convention center averaged about 300 events each year before the pandemic, staffers said. This year, the center is on track to host 175 conventions, 22 of which have already taken place.
Vaughn said the convention industry could return to pre-pandemic levels as soon as late this year or early next.
Visit San Antonio, a city-funded nonprofit organization that holds rallies at the convention center and elsewhere, typically booked around 500 events for a year before the pandemic. This week it reported 327 events scheduled for 2022, bringing what the organization says is an estimated economic impact of approximately $485 million.
The city estimates that SprayFoam 2022 will have an economic impact of $1.4 million. That comes from participants like Andres Osuna, whose 20-employee company hailed from Seattle. Osuna said he enjoyed Brazilian steakhouse Fogo de Chão, Coyote Ugly bar – “that one was a bit wild” – and the food in Market Square. He planned to buy a souvenir for his 8-year-old son at home. Martin Baum, a maintenance technician from Brooklyn, was part of a group that planned to visit Cavender’s Boots in search of cowboy hats. Rasim Akgun, a SprayFoam 2022 attendee from Pennsylvania, paid for a River Walk barge tour.
And SprayFoam 2022, with an estimated attendance of around 625 people, is one of the smaller events. This week, a rally for the Association for Materials Protection and Performance – a professional society for technicians who protect building materials from corrosion – is expected to draw 7,000 people. Later in March, the American Occupational Therapy Association’s annual conference is expected to draw 10,000 people to the city.
Earlier in February, the Texas Music Educators Association kicked off convention season by bringing some 26,000 teachers and students to the city. That number is slightly lower than it was in 2020, reflecting a broad downward trend in attendance, but it marks a huge influx of spenders in San Antonio who weren’t in attendance last year. The organization’s 2020 convention in San Antonio was one of the last in the city before the pandemic hit.
“We were leaving the same week that the plane of Americans evacuated from Wuhan” landed at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, said Karen Cross, the association’s communications manager.
The Downtown Convention Center isn’t the only place convention-goers congregate. To take the example of spray foam insulation contractors, San Antonio held a separate conference and trade show for this industry as recently as November at the JW Marriott Hill Country Resort & Spa on the northern outskirts of the city.
But the convention center is arguably the city’s biggest draw for these groups. Julie Fornaro, who handles media relations for the Spray Polyurethane Foam Alliance — the organizer of SprayFoam 2022 — said that in the years she’s seen the convention travel from city to city, from Daytona Beach to Albuquerque to Orlando, San Antonio Convention Center is “better than most.”