Business

What is a ‘bleisure’ traveler? And why aren’t they coming to SLO County?

A rendering of the Grover Beach Lodge and Conference Center.
A rendering of the Grover Beach Lodge and Conference Center.

San Luis Obispo County will need a much bigger conference center if it hopes to compete for regional conventions that bring in “bleisure” visitors during the midweek lull, according to a market study released Wednesday.

Bleisure — a mashup of “business” and “leisure” — is a new buzzword in the travel industry, and it reflects a growing focus on business travelers who often extend their trips to relax and sample local attractions.

San Luis Obispo County is a natural location for business conferences because it’s midway between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, yet it’s losing the race for bleisure dollars on account of its lack of adequate meeting facilities. That’s especially tough during the offseason.

The county has about 9,000 hotel rooms and although business is good during the summer, there aren’t nearly as many “heads in beds” during the winter. According to the market study, occupancy levels are 50 percent in January, compared with 86 percent in July.

Conventions can help fill that gap, but many of those are going to the Monterey Conference Center, which includes a 20,395-square-foot ballroom and total meeting space of 43,000 square feet. By comparison, the largest ballroom in San Luis Obispo County is the 5,100-square-foot space at Embassy Suites.

There are large exhibit halls at Madonna Inn (20,000 square feet) and the Paso Robles Event Center (18,600), but they lack the amenities and the flexibility that ballrooms offer.

Other local hotels with conference rooms are in the construction or planning stages — the Grover Beach Lodge is one — but they don’t include the large ballrooms demanded by conference planners.

“As such, the county is severely restricted in its ability to host larger groups,” says the $30,000 County-Wide Conference Center Market Study prepared for Visit SLO Cal, a countywide destination marketing organization.

Bleisure — a mashup of “business” and “leisure” — is a new buzzword in the travel industry. It reflects a growing focus on business travelers who often extend their trips to relax and sample local attractions.

The study by B&D Venues, which consults for clients interested in sports stadiums, conference centers and other large public spaces, included an internet survey of meeting planners that netted 57 complete responses.

Most respondents — 63 percent — had never booked a conference in San Luis Obispo County. The No. 1 reason for choosing other locations was their meeting space inventory, followed by hotel pricing and better airline connections.

If San Luis Obispo County added meeting space, 81 percent of respondents who had never booked here before said they “likely” or “possibly” would schedule a conference in San Luis Obispo County. Preferred locations were San Luis Obispo, Five Cities and Paso Robles.

Chuck Davison, president and CEO of Visit SLO Cal, said he’s met with representatives from each of the seven cities and the county to gauge interest in developing a conference center with a 15,000- to 20,000-square-foot ballroom.

“Everyone wanted it in their market,” he said.

The B&D study, which focused on whether there’s demand for a large conference space (there is), is just the first stage of research. Future stages would focus on location and financing, Davison said.

Visit SLO Cal is “agnostic” when it comes to location, he said, but is willing to assist any agencies interested in moving forward.

The study does not include a cost estimate for a SLO County conference center, though it does provide figures for other conference centers. One in Salem, Oregon, built in 2005 with 30,000-square-feet of meeting space, cost $32 million and was financed with bed taxes. A similar facility in South Padre Island, Texas, cost $12.8 million in 1992.

The Monterey Convention Center, built in 1977 and owned by the city of Monterey, is undergoing a $60 million renovation financed with bonds that will be repaid with a special bed tax.

Although it’s unlikely that a local city or San Luis Obispo County would be able to finance such a venture, Davison mentioned the Diablo Canyon settlement money as one possible revenue source. Private developers also are keenly interested in the county, he said, and a public/private partnership is another possibility.

Stephanie Finucane: 805-781-7933, @SLOTribOpEd

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