Hotel association says Arizona conferences, conventions down due to SB 1070 - East Valley Tribune: Arizona

Hotel association says Arizona conferences, conventions down due to SB 1070

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Posted: Tuesday, August 3, 2010 4:07 pm | Updated: 2:00 pm, Thu Aug 5, 2010.

First they were cancelling in protest of the state's new immigration law.

But now the reason organizations are avoiding Arizona for their conferences and conventions may be strictly business.

That's the assessment Tuesday of Kristen Jarnigan, spokeswoman for the Arizona Hotel and Lodging Association.

"They're just worried about their attendance," she said. "It's because of the controversy. They don't want to book in a destination that's going to cause them any risk."

Specifically, she said the fear of some groups is that their individual members may decide they'd rather not come to - and spend their money in - Arizona.

The latest figures put direct losses to hotels at $15 million.

Jarnigan called that figure very conservative. She said the Sheraton in downtown Phoenix recently reported it has lost $9 million alone in business because of fallout from the legislation.

"In all reality, that number is probably quadrupled," she said.

And that number covers only what the hotels would have collected directly from guests for rooms. None of that, she said, covers what conventioneers would have spent in food, clothing or entertainment while in Arizona.

In each case, Jarnigan said, the bottom line is SB 1070. But less clear, she said, is how the law figures into the decision.

At first, Jarnigan said, the cancellations were a direct response to the Legislature approving and the governor signing the law. That was driven, in part, by calls to boycott the state, including a now-abandoned push by Congressman Raul Grijalva.

Now it's different.

Some of it, she said, is the negative publicity about the effects of illegal immigration. That includes safety fears, fueled in part by comments by Gov. Jan Brewer on national TV about headless bodies found in the desert.

"It certainly doesn't help us attract more visitors," Jarnigan said.

But the bigger issue, she said, appears to be that organization members just don't want to be hassled because of the new law.

Jarnigan said she got a call Tuesday from a boy scout leader from Houston who is bringing his troop to the Grand Canyon.

"He is concerned because nine of them are Hispanic," she said. "He didn't know if he needed to carry their birth certificates. He was worried for his kids."

And that is nearly a week after a federal judge barred the state from enforcing key provisions of the law.

Jarnigan said meeting planners, who make money based on convention attendance, have a tendency to be averse to risk. She said they would much rather relocate a conference than jeopardize the event.

"People just want to wait until the whole controversy dies down," Jarnigan explained. She said it's just easier for them to book the conferences elsewhere.

Questions have been raised about various claims of losses.

Byron Schlomach, an economist at the Goldwater Institute, said he does not doubt that SB 1070 has had an effect on tourism and conferences. But he cited the overall national and state economy, saying that also has to be factored in.

Jarnigan, however, said that $15 million figure is based on direct reports from member hotels and resorts whose employees have been told by meeting planners and others that the reason they are pulling out of Arizona is directly related to SB 1070.

In fact, she said, some groups actually have given up their deposits to be able to move their meetings elsewhere.

She acknowledged that only a portion of that estimate of lost dollars - she can't say exactly how much - is attributable to "firm bookings," where the groups already had signed contracts to come. The balance, said Jarnigan are what the industry calls "strong tentatives," where an Arizona site either had a verbal commitment or, at least was in the top three final choices where the talks had gotten down to specific numbers of people and money.

"What that number doesn't track are all the people that are not even considering us right now," she said.

The problem, according to Jarnigan, is not confined to the Phoenix area.

"We've had some significant cancellations in Tucson and in Sedona as well," Jarnigan said. One Sedona resort, she said, told her association that a single conference that moved elsewhere lost the facility $800,000.

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