Throngs of sprayfoam housing contractors swarmed The Espee where a DJ, under multicolor disco lighting, blared Alan Jackson hits and the Barbie song from Danish pop group Aqua.

“Sprayfoam worldwide!” cried the DJ, who announced an afterparty at the 1902 Nightclub. Horse-drawn carriages lined the street to take attendees to new destinations.

To those across the street, Tuesday night’s revelry at the historic plaza might have sounded like a loud wedding. But hotel operators, restaurateurs, bar owners and anyone with a stake in San Antonio’s downtown economy heard the clang of money from across the country pouring into the city. It’s a sound that fell silent at the onset of the pandemic, and its return is welcomed as yet another sign of the pandemic’s loosening grip on the city’s tourism economy.

The SprayFoam 2022 Convention and Expo, advertised as “the country’s largest yearly event dedicated to all things spray polyurethane foam,” comes as the latest business gathering at the Henry B. González Convention Center. (The afterhours celebration at the Espee was an unofficial addendum to a daytime schedule of keynotes, certification exams, exhibits and a golf tournament).

Business conventions like SprayFoam 2022 are the lifeblood for San Antonio’s downtown hospitality industry during otherwise drab Mondays-to-Thursdays, bridging the gap between weekend visitors. They also allow hotels to swell with room reservations during the winter and spring months, before summer tourists arrive.

“Downtown hotels thrive on this kind of business,” said Paul Vaughn, senior vice president for Source Strategies, a San Antonio-based hotel consulting group.

Prior to the pandemic, group-based bookings like these conventions made up roughly 40% of the business at the Hilton Palacio del Rio, located across South Alamo Street from the city’s convention center, said hotel manager Robert Thrailkill.

But these conventions largely evaporated at the onset of the pandemic and have since returned haltingly — far slower than leisure tourism’s dramatic rejuvenation — amid variant spikes, year-long corporate planning cycles, and a growing comfort in the white collar world with substituting Zoom meetings over expensive mass gatherings.

Smaller conventions have returned faster than large conventions, which are typically scheduled and canceled many months in advance, Thrailkill said, but he’s not seen any new cancellations in months. “It’s getting better, and we’re going forward, not backward.”

Hotel revenues reflect the continued dip in convention business. According to Source Strategies, lodging revenue for hotels in the city is rising but still lags behind where it was in 2019. San Antonio’s hotels raked in $1.2 billion in the fourth quarter of 2021, a dramatic increase from 2020 but almost 10% behind the fourth quarter of 2019. Just less than 5% fewer hotel rooms were sold in 2021’s fourth quarter compared to the final quarter of 2019.

By last summer, hundreds of canceled conventions had cost the city an estimated $475 million in lost economic impact. Since then new bookings have steadily picked up, though they are far from pre-pandemic levels. The convention center, which is owned by the city, averaged about 300 events every year before the pandemic, according to staffers. This year the center is on track to host 175 conventions, with 22 having already occurred.

Vaughn said the convention business could return to pre-pandemic levels as soon as the end of this year or the beginning of the next.

People hang out in a common area during the SprayFoam 2022 Convention and Expo at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center on Wednesday.
People congregate in a common area during the SprayFoam 2022 Convention and Expo at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center on Wednesday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Visit San Antonio, a city-funded nonprofit that books gatherings at the convention center and elsewhere, typically booked about 500 events for a year pre-pandemic. This week it reported 327 events planned for 2022, bringing what the organization says is an estimated $485 million or so in economic impact.

SprayFoam 2022 is estimated by the city to have an economic impact of $1.4 million. That comes from attendees like Andres Osuna, whose 20-employee firm flew in from Seattle. Osuna said he enjoyed the Fogo de Chão Brazilian Steakhouse, the Coyote Ugly bar — “that one was kind of wild” — and the food at Market Square. He planned to buy a souvenir for his 8-year-old back home. Martin Baum, a service technician from Brooklyn, was part of a group that planned to visit Cavender’s Boots in search of cowboy hats. Rasim Akgun, a SprayFoam 2022 attendee from Pennsylvania, paid for a River Walk barge tour.

And SprayFoam 2022, with an estimated attendance of about 625, is one of the smaller events. This week, a gathering for the Association for Materials Protection and Performance — a professional society for technicians who protect building materials from corrosion — is expected to draw 7,000. Later in March, the American Occupational Therapy Association’s annual conference is estimated to bring 10,000 to the city.

Earlier in February, the Texas Music Educators Association kicked off convention season when it brought to the city a reported 26,000 teachers and students. That number is slightly less than it was in 2020, reflecting a wide trend of dampened attendance, but it marks an enormous influx of spenders in San Antonio that were not present last year. The organization’s 2020 convention in San Antonio was one of the city’s last before the pandemic struck.

“We were leaving the very same week the plane of Americans being evacuated from Wuhan” landed at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, said Karen Cross, the association’s communications manager.

The downtown convention center isn’t the only place where conventioneers gather. To take the example of spray foam insulation contractors, San Antonio hosted a separate conference and trade show for this industry as recently as November at the JW Marriott Hill Country Resort & Spa on the northern outskirts of town.

But the convention center is arguably the city’s biggest draw for these groups. Julie Fornaro, who handles media relations for the Spray Polyurethane Foam Alliance — SprayFoam 2022’s organizer — said that in the years she’s seen the convention travel from city to city, Daytona Beach to Albuquerque to Orlando, San Antonio’s convention center is “better than the majority.”

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham writes about business and technology. Contact him at waylon@sareport.org.