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San Francisco hotels, venues hurry to prepare for world leaders at APEC summit

The Fairmont hotel in Nob Hill will be a major destination for delegates coming to San Francisco for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Clif Clark, the San Francisco general manager for Marriott International, said preparation for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit is much like the Super Bowl—with the added twist of hosting heads of state and senior officials from around the world. 

As part of his role, Clark oversees six major hotels in the city and serves as the general manager for the Westin St. Francis, the historic 1,254-room luxury hotel adjacent to Union Square. All the properties expect a major influx of visitors due to APEC, set for Nov. 12-18.

Most citywide events are put on the calendar years in advance, but San Francisco was only officially announced as the location for the summit last November. After that announcement, a variety of pre-planning meetings whirred into gear, focusing on everything from fundraising efforts and security preparations to where exactly the more than 30,000 people descending on the city will stay.

“It’s all hands on deck. You gear up to have your best foot forward and have everything bright and shiny and looking its best,” Clark said. “This is a different dimension of importance compared to a sales kickoff for a tech company.”

Clark said the bulk of his prep work was organized via SF Travel, the city’s tourism bureau, which has held regular meetings with the U.S. State Department and the White House. These meetings have helped to surface and address various diplomatic sensitivities among the 21 economies involved in the summit—for example, how to handle leaders from foreign countries who may have difficult working relationships or complicated histories with one another.

San Francisco is expecting more than 30,000 people to descend on the city for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and associated events. | Source: Daniel Slim/AFP/Getty Images

There’s still some work pending, including sorting out the remaining foreign delegations that have yet to ink their official contracts with hotels. The Westin St. Francis, however, is essentially sold out for the week.  

Clark said the hotel is set to host one foreign delegation, a number of Secret Service personnel, members of the international media covering the summit and visitors for the CEO Summit being held concurrently with APEC.

The federal government has declared the APEC conference a "National Special Security Event,” a designation that underlines the potential for a terrorist attack or major civil disruption. It’s the first time that’s happened in Northern California and means that the Secret Service is heading up security planning for the event.

San Francisco hotels also plan to have thousands of room nights available for police officers from other municipalities during the summit. Federal authorities have previously estimated that total staffing for the event’s security could be anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 officers. The San Francisco Police Department currently has roughly 1,500 sworn officers.

But that doesn’t mean hotels are outsourcing everything. Clark said the Westin St. Francis’ security will be fully staffed and supplemented with contract security for additional support.

There are also more rudimentary concerns that Clark is responsible for, including higher-frequency cleaning of public spaces to make sure things are in top condition for November.

“It’s easy to clean when it’s clean,” Clark said. “It’s not easy to clean dirty.”

‘We Cannot Blow It’

As director of San Francisco’s Convention Facilities Department, Ken Bukowski is in the midst of a monthslong prep period to get the Moscone Center ready to host APEC. 

He’s been working on getting the conference center in tiptop shape, conducting a series of walkthroughs with staff to examine the facility and its environment with a fine-toothed comb.

“There were things that you kind of had gotten used to that didn’t stand out," Bukowski said. "Now, we’re like, ‘That’s a problem. That’s a problem. That’s a problem.’” 

On his list of examples? A bench in front of Moscone Center with a big chip that’s being repaired. A defunct bus shelter across the street that acts as a trash magnet and is being removed. Repainting projects and landscaping projects in the surrounding area. A graffiti removal plan that needs to be enacted, as well as efforts to refresh parking lot entrances.

Within Moscone Center itself, Bukowski recently had all public-facing furniture reupholstered.

There are also additional security preparations, like upgrades to the city’s emergency responder radio coverage system and meetings with the Secret Service to review Moscone’s camera system. 

The Moscone Center, the city's largest convention center, is the central venue for events associated with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

“For me, this is great leverage for me to get all my dream jobs done here,” Bukowski said. “This is really such a major opportunity to showcase San Francisco, and we cannot blow it.”

Bukowski is also working to coordinate all the city’s various community ambassadors to provide supplemental support during APEC and figuring out how to recruit the hundreds of volunteers necessary to fully staff the event. 

The Moscone Center is the nexus of a security perimeter that will be put in place in the South of Market neighborhood during the summit. The official area will be finalized this week, but preliminary plans include the area bordered by Market Street, Harrison Street, Second Street and Fifth Street. That is likely to mean road closures, rerouting of transit lines and limited pedestrian access.

While the summit is the centerpiece of the week, there is a myriad of receptions, affiliated meetings, business dinners and welcome events serving different audiences. The determination of the security perimeter has cascading effects on the types of venues that can be used and when they are open to the public. 

City agencies are working with local businesses to help communicate how to deal with potential disruptions to operations from security preparations. In an effort to help boost local small businesses from the influx of visitors, San Francisco Restaurant Week is being extended to Nov. 16 to serve event attendees.   

Officials said that President Joe Biden plans to stay in a hotel in Nob Hill, which will have its own security perimeter surrounding it. While there has been no confirmation of where he will be staying in November, Biden chose to stay at the Fairmont during his last trip to San Francisco in June.

“Groups like APEC highlight San Francisco’s extensive economic, cultural and academic connections to the Asia-Pacific region, including the City’s recognition as the gateway to Asia Pacific,” Markus Treppenhauer, the general manager of the Fairmont said in a statement. He said his staff is working on ways to connect attendees to other venues and activities that tell the story of San Francisco’s art, history and culture. 

An Outsize Impact

Jon Handlery, CEO of Handlery Union Square, said APEC is expected to generate around 45,000 total room nights across 30 days. That number includes rooms for security staffing and supplemental events before and after the summit.

Handlery said that the vast majority of the delegations will be located in the city’s largest hotels, which have more resources, including additional meeting space and security.

Local officials project around $37 million in total economic impact from the event, including some $25 million in direct spending. Peak room nights during the summit itself are expected to reach around 6,000. As a point of comparison, Dreamforce—the city’s largest annual business conference—is expected to total more than 70,000 room nights, including 16,500 at the peak.

Dreamforce, San Francisco's largest business conference, brought around 40,000 attendees to the city in 2022. | Source: Constanza Hevia H. for The Standard

But Handlery said those numbers belie the outsize impact he believes APEC could have on the city. City officials see the event as a chance to hit the reset button on the city’s international reputation, which has taken a battering in recent years. 

“I can’t think of anything else like this where the world is watching us. Dreamforce is a huge conference, but it’s not getting the same kind of global attention,” Handlery said, adding that the summit could help kick-start renewed interest for group and business travel in San Francisco. 

According to numbers provided by SF Travel, room nights associated with events at Moscone Center for 2023 are expected to hit more than 664,000 in 2023, higher than 2018 numbers.

Those numbers, however, are expected to drop off dramatically in 2024 due to pandemic cancellations, conferences cycling to different locations and the slower recovery of the city’s central business district.

Alex Bastian, the president and CEO of the Hotel Council of San Francisco, said APEC could help reverse that trend and revive San Francisco’s status as a gateway to the Asia-Pacific region.

Bastian said there’s an opportunity to draw in visiting CEOs and business leaders for investments that could pay dividends long after November.

In an effort to court this audience, GlobalSF, which advocates for foreign investment in the Bay Area, is holding a one-day event on Nov. 14 called “The Future Starts in California” that will feature presentations on artificial intelligence, life sciences and other emerging industries. 

In a similar vein, San Francisco’s Chamber of Commerce is working on developing an Innovation Zone that will host events and feature demonstrations of technology like autonomous cars, and San Francisco’s Department of Environment is helping organize open houses with local clean-technology startups.

“[APEC] is unparalleled in terms of what this can do for our city in the long run, in terms of investment opportunities, in terms of really kind of reshaping the trajectory of our city and state,” Bastian said. 

Kevin Truong can be reached at kevin@sfstandard.com