The Elbert files: Des Moines was early leader in conventions
Friday, March 15, 2013 7:00 AM
The metro area’s convention industry is run by overachievers who last year leveraged a $4 million budget into $96 million of sales for area hotels, restaurants and retailers.
In fact, the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), led by Greg Edwards during the past 12 years, has a long history of overachievement.
I’ve been looking into the early years of the CVB as part of a yearlong effort to spotlight the history of the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce during the 125th anniversary of its founding in 1888.
It turns out that Des Moines was among the first cities to recognize the value of conventions, with efforts in this area dating back to the latter half of the 19th century.
A 1989 history of the International Association of Convention Bureaus notes that St. Louis was the first city “to encourage conventions” in 1836, 15 years before Des Moines was even incorporated. It adds that Detroit was the first to put a man “on the road to sell the city as a convention site” in 1895.
Others, including Chicago, Kansas City, Minneapolis and Des Moines, were not far behind.
On Jan. 25, 1888, the Des Moines Commercial Exchange, a predecessor of today’s Greater Des Moines Partnership, listed nine goals. Topping the list: “Securing and entertaining conventions.”
By 1896, the group had raised $40,000 in pledges and launched plans to build the Des Moines Auditorium, which became the earliest predecessor of today’s Iowa Events Center. The auditorium was completed in 1899 on Fourth Street, just two blocks south of its modern counterpart.
A year later, in 1900, the Exchange began promoting Des Moines as a tourist destination. Among the attractions: “Dry roads that were available for bicycling.” More than 80 conventions were held in Des Moines that year, including a Mothers’ Congress and a national gathering of music teachers.
In fact, convention business was so strong the 3,000-seat Auditorium was soon outdated. Efforts were begun to build a larger venue, called the Coliseum, on the west bank of the Des Moines River where the YMCA stands today.
The Coliseum opened in 1908, the same year that a convention bureau was created as a permanent arm of the Des Moines chamber.
Half a continent away, the predecessor of the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority was also launched in 1908. A year later, Denver launched a CVB.
Des Moines was a founding member of the International Association of Convention Bureaus in 1914, and by 1925, the Iowa capital was considered one of the nation’s leading convention cities, hosting 100 events that year.
Des Moines remained a convention leader up through World War II, but fell behind after the war when the city was slow to replace the Coliseum. Voters approved a bond issued to build Veterans Memorial Auditorium in 1945. But they didn’t get the job done until 1955, six years after the Coliseum had burned to the ground.
An even bigger problem was finances. Starting in the late 1950s, other cities, led by Las Vegas, began charging hotel guests a “bed tax” to cover CVB work.
Iowa did not approve a hotel-motel tax until the early 1980s, and even then it was nearly two decades before a modern CVB under Edwards’ leadership was able to put it to effective use.
Today, Des Moines has again become a convention leader, playing off the quality-of-life improvements created in recent decades.
In fiscal year 2012, the metro area hosted 900 events that helped draw more than 2.9 million visitors. As a result, Greater Des Moines’ hospitality industry has grown from a handful of hotels with fewer than 100 employees 125 years ago to 10,600 hotel rooms and more than 16,400 jobs today.
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