Talk about a big first week. Ken Bukowski started his new job as San Francisco’s Convention Facilities Director (aka head of Moscone Center) the same week the city hosted Dreamforce, the biggest convention since Covid. Bukowski is a city veteran, though: He’s been the acting Moscone head since January, and prior to that spent 20 years in various city departments, most recently as Deputy City Administrator. A native of Nebraska, Bukowski came to San Francisco during Halloween weekend in 1988, saw the festivities in the Castro neighborhood, and fell in love with the city. He moved to San Francisco in 1989 and has been here ever since.
Bukowski has a big task ahead of him: The city’s convention industry created $1.17 billion in economic impact in 2019, but is projected to create just $400 million this year in the aftermath of Covid. At the same time, there were signs that San Francisco was losing ground to competitor cities like Las Vegas, with the latter recovering convention business much more handily.
This interview has been condensed for brevity.
A lot of residents grumble about Dreamforce and the traffic congestion and overcrowding it brings. What would you say to them?
I would say San Francisco needed this event, and a few days of busy sidewalks and congested traffic is a small price to pay for what we received in return. And I would ask them to talk to the thousands of people who are employed because of the event. Hotels were full and had to call in extra staff. Restaurants were booked. It feels like San Francisco is fully alive again, and it’s such a great feeling. I think we needed that optimism.
Can you tell us about the work that’s being done to attract conventions back?
We started doing much more coordinated city activity for conventions about six months ago. Our main partners are the police department and Public Works, and we also work with the Department of Emergency Management and a variety of other city departments. We meet before each event with the event organizer and we talk through the specifics of their event, and we tell them everything we’re going to do in advance.
From the city departments, the police department deserves a lot of credit. Given the large number of people, one of the biggest concerns is making sure it’s a safe environment, both within the event itself and in the surrounding area outside the event. They’ve been out there on street corners; they have a very strong presence, which I think has been very helpful for people to feel comfortable. I’ve seen them engaging with different attendees and helping them out, so that’s been great.
We’ve also started doing internal meetings where we talk about specific areas. We had an internal meeting a month ago where we talked about Fourth Street being an important corridor between Market and Howard Street. How do we really make sure that there are no problems in that two block area?
And we’re working on a way to gather more feedback from attendees themselves. Right now we’re not doing that, and we need to own more of what’s happening in terms of what people are experiencing.
What’s your biggest challenge with respect to getting conventions back?
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about how we combat national media stories. They’ll take single incidents and make it seem like all of San Francisco’s like that. And we hear over and over from attendees that, wow, I thought it was going to be terrible here, but it’s not. The streets are clean. We’re still a city and we have typical city problems, but it is a clean and safe place for people to visit and see conventions.
I’ve heard that the city’s image problem has gotten a lot better with the Fox News crowd after the recall of former District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Have you experienced that?
I think part of it is because San Francisco has a lot of other high-profile politicians between Speaker Pelosi and Vice President Harris, so we are naturally a target for others because by attacking San Francisco, they’re attacking those individuals as well. I do think that the Mayor’s efforts around supporting the police department and the new District Attorney have helped with many people in terms of ‘OK, San Francisco thinks safety is important.’
Why should businesses have conventions at Moscone Center?
We completed a $500 million expansion project to Moscone right before the pandemic, with the latest HVAC system and wide open spaces and new outside terraces. Moscone’s setting is unique because we’re within walking distance of hotels and amazing restaurants and world-class museums. A lot of convention centers are off to the side somewhere, but with Moscone, you can immediately walk outside and experience what San Francisco has to offer.
San Francisco itself has so many things going for it: its natural beauty, the restaurants, the incredible weather and a kind of soul to the city where we welcome every visitor just as they are.
Anna Tong can be reached at [email protected]