A brief respite from the storms battering the Bay Area Monday provided a gray yet optimistic backdrop for an event that city officials hope will foreshadow a badly needed return of business travel to San Francisco.
An army of people decked out in power suits and lanyards descended on the Westin St. Francis hotel in Union Square for the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, an annual tradition that had been on hiatus for two years because of the pandemic.
Back in 2020, the last time the conference was held in person, roughly 10,000 people attended the event. This year, the number is closer to 8,000, but that doesn’t include the thousands crowding into private dining rooms at restaurants and hotel rooms turned into conference facilities for related meetings and events.
This iteration, which features appearances from major pharma companies and key industry figures like FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf, carries special weight in light of the uncertain prospects for San Francisco’s Downtown, marked by high vacancies and far fewer visitors than before the pandemic.
“The energy is buzzing,” said Mike Serbinis, the CEO of Chicago-based health care tech company League. After the market volatility of the past few months, he believes there is a feeling of optimism for a better year ahead.
“It’s always busy, but now it’s busy and happy, rather than busy and sad,” Serbinis said as twangy guitar licks played from a nearby rockabilly band.
Banking on a Comeback
Rodney Fong, the president and CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, recently co-hosted an event about the lagging return of the city’s downtown. One of the major themes was the uphill battle the city faces in changing public perception of the city.
Fong argued that having visitors experience a thriving downtown is key to shifting the narrative.
“When you can hear the hustle and bustle of the foreign language, the honking, their horns, the energy and buzz,” Fong said. “That's what this is all about.”
Bastian said a return of tourism and business travel would shore up the city’s challenging fiscal situation. He pointed to a recent report showing an estimated $728 million budget deficit over the next two years. One silver lining, however, was sales and hotel tax revenue projections came in at more than $50 million over prior estimates.
Traditionally a hub for travel from the Asia Pacific region and a center of technology conferences, San Francisco’s business travel took a battering from the pandemic.
The city saw the deepest decline in business travel revenue of any major metro in 2022 with a loss of $1.68 billion—or 68.8%—when compared with 2019, according to data from the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA).
SF Travel, the city’s tourism board, said it had confirmed over 30 events for the Moscone Center next year, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting. But those reservations are not set in stone. Case in point: The city recently lost the VMware Explore conference, which is decamping for Las Vegas.
Rasu Shrestha, an executive vice president for Atrium Health, who traveled to the conference from his home in Charlotte, North Carolina, said this year’s event had the distinct feeling of a “return to normal, a buoyancy and excitement.” Shrestha estimated that 95% of people were going maskless in the conference.
He said that while the storms led to an unfortunate mishap with an umbrella, nothing was catastrophic. The problems that were evident? Homelessness and the street conditions, particularly graffiti.
But that’s not new either. In fact, Shrestha had been part of an executive working group at a J.P. Morgan conference a few years back that brainstormed ways to combat homelessness.
His larger issue was the room rates that skyrocket during the conference. He said he was paying $900 a night for a room he described as a “shoebox with the hot water not working.”
Clif Clark, the general manager of the Westin St. Francis, received word from a colleague who told him that local Marriott hotels were at or near capacity due to the event. That represents a major shift from one year prior, when the Omicron wave was sweeping the country and J.P. Morgan decided to make its event virtual just a few weeks from its scheduled start.
Clark, who was managing the Palace Hotel at the time, said his property experienced among its lowest-ever occupancy levels during the pandemic that month.
“We’ve come a long way, and it’s gratifying to see business happening,” Clark said. “We have Covid-19 in the rearview mirror, and people are comfortable about travel again.”
Back to Normal?
The St. Francis’ lobby was chock-full of conference goers shuffling past to their next appointment, and Clark said hundreds of guest rooms around the city have been converted to meeting rooms. He added the hotel hired around 100 additional part-time employees for the convention.
One major distinction between the J.P. Morgan conference and events like Dreamforce is the event’s location at the St. Francis in the heart of Union Square rather than Moscone Center. That means meetings are happening at hotel rooms, as well as at local businesses.
“Business like ours become the Moscone Center,” said John Konstin Jr., co-owner of longtime Downtown San Francisco haunt John’s Grill.
Konstin walked up the three floors of the restaurant, which he said was nearly packed to the brim during lunch, with conferencegoers stopping for a bite to eat or attending private events. The restaurant reconfigures its floor plan during the event to fit in more people comfortably.
“J.P. Morgan is crucial to our whole year,” Konstin said. “We need to make sure that people want to come to San Francisco, dine at a 115-year-old restaurant like ours and continue on their day of billion dollar deals.”
Aswin Gunasekar, the founder and CEO of Santa Clara brain-imaging company Zeto, said as a Bay Area resident he is well familiar with San Francisco’s problems, but said there was simply no replacement for the relationship-building the conference provides.
Gunasekar joked that the rains could have played a positive role in sweeping away detritus from city streets, but still listed public safety as concern. Parking on the street, for example, still has him worried.
“I think it’s fully back to normal,” Gunasekar said. “People who don’t know San Francisco complain about it, but this is where it happens and you have to be here. The grumblers will always grumble.”