On performance nights at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, around the corner at Swank Restaurant, the tables tend to fill up.
“On average 80 percent of our reservations on show nights are people going to the show,” said Kayla Schlecht, sales and marketing manager for Urban Restaurants, Inc., which manages Swank. “It’s a huge, huge percent of our business.”
The popular pairing of dinner and a show has contributed to making the Portland’5 Centers for the Arts not just an artistic powerhouse in the Portland region but also an economic engine. Last fiscal year, the five theaters attracted 928,000 attendees to 963 performances—and added $93.4 million to the local economy.
Portland’5 is one of four venues managed by Metro, Portland’s regional government, along with the Oregon Convention Center, the Oregon Zoo and the Portland Expo Center. Combined, these public visitor venues supported nearly 10,000 jobs and generated about $969 million in economic activity in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties last fiscal year.
That’s an increase of more than 50 percent since 2012, and it means more jobs and more support for businesses around the region.
“These types of facilities are one way for government to generate a positive return on investment,” said Susan Sieger, principal of Crossroads Consulting and project manager on the economic impact reports. “They’re generating both quantitative and qualitative returns to the community.”
A focus on ‘high impact’ events
The biggest returns come from the Oregon Convention Center, whose conventions, tradeshows, meetings and more generated $729.2 million in spending last fiscal year.
Because many of its events draw out-of-town visitors for multiple days, the convention center generates more spending than the other venues. Big, multiday conventions and tradeshows can pack local hotels and restaurants, bringing significant investment to Portland that may otherwise go to another region. On average the “high-impact” attendees these events attract spend $404 per day while visiting Portland, the report said.
This is among the chief reasons why Metro Council is advancing a hotel adjacent to convention center. “As stewards of these facilities, it is our responsibility to invest wisely to generate healthy returns for the region. Metro has a good track record for doing this,” said Metro Council President Tom Hughes.
Attracting more multiday conventions and tradeshows is central to the Convention Center’s business strategy—a strategy that appears to be working. From 2015 to 2016, the number of convention and tradeshow attendee days—the total attendance at an event multiplied by the length of the event— increased by 11 percent.
“We really build our business around what’s going on at the convention center,” said Felicia Rahm, director of sales for the Crowne Plaza Portland Downtown, which is located near the convention center. Rahm said business from convention center events is particularly important in the rainy months, when other types of tourism are lower. “What’s really nice and inspiring as a hotel and a hotelier is to see that push for off-season business.”
Another focus has been attracting large-scale sporting events, including the recent IAAF World Indoor Track and Field Championships, which involved building a 7,000-seat stadium within the center. “OCC is committed to attracting national conventions that produce the greatest economic impact to the region,” said Matt Pizzuti, the convention center’s interim executive director.
Portland’5 and the Expo Center have employed similar strategies to attract more events, attendees and visitors. The Expo Center emphasized national consumer shows and tradeshows, including the Mecum Auction, a new event this year featuring a live auction of collector and classic cars, motorcycles and other memorabilia. The auction drew nearly 9,000 people for its Portland debut.
Portland’5 started presenting events in 2015, booking performers like Bela Fleck, Black Violin and the National Geographic Live speaker series. The venues have also staged more Broadway shows like Wicked and Book of Mormon—big-name musicals that tend to attract more out-of-town visitors. In a two-week run this year, Book of Mormon drew more than 45,000 attendees.
Capital investments mean local jobs
Event tickets, hotel stays and restaurant meals are just part of the venues’ financial picture. They also contribute to Portland’s economy through employee salaries, capital investments and, in the Oregon Zoo’s case, hundreds of tons of food.
Last year, the animals that helped draw about 1.5 million visitors to the zoo consumed 250,000 pounds of hay, 58,000 pounds of yams, 28,000 pounds of apples, and much more. The zoo purchases the produce from suppliers in Clackamas and Portland, supporting local businesses and the local farmers that grow much of the food.
“Our zoo is much more than a destination,” said Dr. Don Moore, director of the Oregon Zoo. “Through investing in better habitats, better visitor experience, and community events, we draw more people through our gates to learn about how they can save these animals in the wild. With every new visitor to Elephant Lands or ZooLights, we’ll help create a better future for wildlife.”
The zoo is currently completing eight major capital projects as part of a $125 million bond passed by voters in 2008. Some projects are already complete and open to visitors, including Condors of the Columbia and Elephant Lands. Construction crews are finishing work on a new education center, and planning is in progress for a new polar bear habitat scheduled to open in 2019. In addition to improving sustainability, supporting animal welfare and educating visitors, these investments create jobs for construction workers, architects and others in the region.
Investments like these helped the zoo support 1,000 jobs in the region – a 37 percent increase since 2012. Popular events like ZooLights and the zoo’s summer concert series, which together attracted about 260,000 visitors, also contribute to the regional economy, supporting approximately 250 permanent and 400 seasonal zoo employees.
At the convention center, construction of the Hyatt Regency Portland is planned to begin in 2017. This major capital project is expected to create 2,000 jobs during construction and support 950 permanent jobs after it opens in 2019.
Public venues, public mission
Along with their economic mission, the venues are focusing on contributing to the community, too.
Last year Portland’5 launched a program to reach greater Portland students with free and culturally diverse performances. The program is offered to schools with a high percentage of low-income students, and Portland’5 provides transportation to and from the concert halls and live streaming for classrooms not in attendance. This year they’re expanding the program and expect to reach more than 20,000 students.
The Expo Center hosted an event in May to commemorate two tragedies in Portland’s history: the Vanport flood and the Portland Assembly Center. In partnership with students and teachers from Beaumont Middle School, the event honored survivors of the tragedies and educated attendees about local history. Attendees watched a student-created documentary, and survivors were invited to give oral histories to student historians.
“When we heard about the Beaumont students’ project, we were very impressed,” said Matthew Rotchford, director of the Expo Center. “We wanted to give them an opportunity to showcase their work to a broader audience.”
Learn more about Metro's visitor venues