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Conventions, mass meetings and gatherings – the lifeblood of San Antonio’s tourism economy – have begun a slow return to the city after an anemic year marked by hundreds of cancellations.

The City reported 46 upcoming conventions and gatherings scheduled for the Henry B. González Convention Center before September, not including three that have already occurred in May.

The events include association meetings for dentists and bandmasters, anime conventions, martial arts competitions, wedding business showcases, and more. The influx of visitors to the city will inject money into downtown in the form of hotel rooms, restaurant orders, and other spillover spending.

And those are just the meetings planned for the convention center. More are happening at private venues, such as the 130th annual convention for the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, which drew more than 400 attendants to the Hyatt Regency San Antonio Riverwalk hotel last week.

Last month, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said roughly 60 events and conventions were booked for the convention center before September. Asked about the reduced number last week, a spokeswoman for the city said that some may have already happened.

Nirenberg also indicated at the time that restrictions could soon be lifted on outdoor events hosted at city facilities, such as the River Walk.

Since the start of the pandemic in March last year, the city has lost 297 citywide and in-house meetings to cancellations, at an estimated $475 million in lost economic impact, according to Visit San Antonio. The organization reported no cancellations in the past month.

“When you consider the loss of nearly a half-billion dollars in economic impact, it’s a seismic blow that affects nearly every sector of our community,” said Dave Krupinski, Visit San Antonio’s interim president and CEO. But the organization has seen “consistent positive trends for the return of convention business,” he said, beginning with the NCAA women’s basketball tournament in March and April. “We are very optimistic as we move forward.”

Visit San Antonio books 250 meetings annually in a typical year, with roughly 90 hosted at the convention center, a spokesman said.

The 37 organized through the group for the remainder of the year represents an estimated economic impact of $108.3 million, the spokesman said.

One of the most immediate sectors impacted by conventions is hotels, where room occupancy figures have improved from 2020 but not recovered completely. Paul Vaughn, senior vice president for Source Strategies Inc., a hotel industry consulting group based in San Antonio, has said 2020 had the “worst hotel performance” since the company began tracking hotel numbers in the late 1980s.

Source reported Thursday that San Antonio’s lodging revenue for first quarter 2021 was down 23.2% compared to first quarter 2020, which ended as the pandemic was beginning. A statement accompanying those figures said “some demand is returning.”

“The hospitality sector has weathered five consecutive quarters of significant revenue and demand losses that have hit the largest metros the hardest,” the statement said.

The return to pre-pandemic leisure spending is also reflected in the increasing demand for restaurant service. Data from OpenTable, an online restaurant reservation company, shows that the number of diners at San Antonio restaurants has skyrocketed in recent weeks. In the last 30 days, half have seen more reservations and walk-ins than there were on the same date in 2019 – on some days as much as 40% more.

Waylon Cunningham

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