Moscone Center, San Francisco’s major convention center, is a critical part of the economic engine that drives Downtown.
Although 2023 is shaping up to be a positive year after the conference hall largely languished during the pandemic, forecasts beyond this year show worrying signs of weakness on the horizon.
While tourism officials are expecting robust activity at Moscone Center this year, the forecast looks a lot less rosy in 2024 and beyond, according to projections presented at SF Travel’s marketing summit Tuesday.
Events at Moscone provide much-needed foot traffic to Downtown small businesses, a flood of direct spending from event organizers and a foundation of hotel bookings for the broader hospitality industry. In 2022, for example, convention and event attendee spending reached around $587 million.
This year marks a huge improvement over last year, with hotel bookings tied to events at Moscone—a closely tracked industry metric—recovering to roughly what they were in 2018. The events space was subject to a four-year, $551 million renovation project that wrapped up in 2019.
One of the biggest signs of hope for Moscone was last year’s Dreamforce, which drew some 40,000 in-person visitors. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff described the event as a major test case of San Francisco’s status as a convention city.
“Everything is open for the first time with this convention,” Benioff said in an interview at the time. “Let's see if this can be a great convention city and everybody has a good time.”
Brett Allor, senior director of market strategy and research at SF Travel, attributed some of this lift in 2023 to good timing, particularly medical conferences that rotate locations lining up in San Francisco.
But starting in 2024, the picture looks a lot dimmer.
Nicole Rogers, chief sales officer at SF Travel, said in order to attract more events, tourism officials plan to nearly double the number of convention and events sales staff, provide discounts for Moscone event bookings and focus on smaller group events to make up the gap.
Two negative themes have consistently emerged among prospective event organizers and visitors: costs and street conditions.
At Tuesday’s conference, District Attorney Brooke Jenkins touted a stronger relationship with police under her tenure and pledged to tighten up enforcement compared with her predecessor, Chesa Boudin.
Meanwhile, concerns about costs are growing amid ongoing inflation and a potential recession, which could lead to a pullback on travel and event spending.
“Street conditions and pricing continue to negatively impact the pace [of recovery],” Allor said. “We’re constantly working on retaining business rather than trying to win new business.”
One other worrying sign is lost and canceled room nights, which breached 2 million for both 2023 and 2024. That’s due in part to event bookers that opted to go elsewhere, including VMware Explore, which decamped from the Moscone Center to Las Vegas.
SF Travel’s projections for Moscone room bookings into 2030 reflect a moment of truth for tourism officials as they contend with a more muted return of group and business travel.
Prior projections had numbers more in line with 2019’s record count of 967,956 room nights, but those sunny expectations have since fallen. Officials are currently aiming for annual room nights of 650,000 from 2026 to 2030.
Kevin Truong can be reached at [email protected]