Hospitality and tourism is the backbone of the Long Beach economy, with overnight visitors generating an estimated $300 million during a normal year of conventions, events and attractions, according to the Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau. The last two years, however, have been anything but normal, and the sector has been clawing its way back—with notable success, according to CVB President and CEO Steve Goodling.
In 2019, the last full year of conventions before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city hosted 38 conventions with a total of 123,204 room nights, according to CVB data. Already for 2022, the city has 31 conventions on the books, for a total of 94,513 room nights.
While conventions may appear to be tracking behind pre-pandemic levels, Goodling noted that 15% of the city’s convention business is often booked during the year the event will take place, meaning more conventions and upward of 30,000 room nights could likely still be booked for 2022, superseding pre-pandemic figures. (All this without the Jehovah’s Witnesses convention, the city’s largest with 14,000 room nights. The organization canceled all its events worldwide.)
The key to the CVB’s success in ramping conventions back up was the fact that the Long Beach organization was one of the first convention and visitors bureaus to get back on the market, selling the city to prospective conventioneers, according to Goodling. The group first hit the road in September.
Over multiple trips, the CVB sales team was able to muster up dozens of requests for proposals with the potential to generate over 160,000 room nights for the city, Goodling said.
“If we hadn’t been out, we wouldn’t have had that number of leads,” Goodling said.
“I was at the sales mission in Washington, D.C.,” Charlie Beirne, general manager of the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center, said. “They were pumped to see us.”
The CVB was able to save 30% of canceled conventions from the past 18 months and move them to future years, Goodling said. Because of this and the sales team’s push, the organization is 65% ahead of pace for convention bookings for 2024, 134% ahead for 2025 and 146% ahead for 2026.
While conventions are picking back up in the coming years, the Convention Center had to rely heavily on another revenue stream in 2021: migrant children. For months, the facility housed hundreds of migrant children who crossed into the U.S. at the southern border. The government contract was for $35 million.
The contract with the federal government to house migrant children also ultimately benefited Downtown hotels, Goodling said.
“In the beginning, we were told there was no expectation of overnight accommodations needed for those workers because they’d all be local,” Goodling said. “Then, three days out from the arrival of the children, we were getting calls for 600 to 800 rooms per night.”
The room necessities allowed the Hyatt Regency, the city’s largest hotel, to reopen earlier than anticipated, Goodling said. The Hyatt, which relies on conventions for occupancy (it is attached to the Convention Center) suffered massive losses amid the pandemic.
Hyatt General Manager Sid Ramani declined to comment for this story.
“[The migrant center] helped us in being able to open up the Convention Center,” Goodling said. “It helped us in being able to open up the Hyatt. It helped us in being able to create occupancy. It helped us in being able to create visitors to go into restaurants.”
“It kind of jump-started our tourism economy.”
The shelter for migrant children closed in late July, just in time for the facility to host its first convention in 16 months in early August. The few conventions that have taken place this year have exceeded expectations, Beirne said. The recent Complex Con, an annual pop culture, music, food and activism event, was expected to draw about 16,000 attendees but ended up with closer to 40,000—still below 2019, but a promising sign of people’s urge to get back to conventions.
Shows also are performing well, Beirne said, noting eight sold out shows—3,000 people per night—at the Terrace Theater for comedians Bill Burr, John Mulaney and Louis C.K.
With the saving graces of federal money and overperformance, the Convention Center was able to close out the year without any losses, Beirne said, adding that the year was flat. But the facility has not rebounded in terms of staffing, he said. Prior to the pandemic, the facility had about 140 full-time employees. That number plummeted to about 15 at the height of the public health crisis and has grown now to about 50, according to Beirne.
Beyond full-time staff, Beirne said he is having difficulty staffing events. At one December charity event, Beirne hoped to have 95 servers for 95 tables but ended up with only 65.
“They were hustling,” Beirne said of the small staff. “Getting part-time help, even culinary—it’s tough.”
The Convention Center is not the only facility struggling to staff up. Area restaurants, which play a major role in the city’s tourism economy, continue to be short-staffed, according to Long Beach Restaurant Association President Ciaran Gough, co-owner of The 908 at Long Beach Exchange in East Long Beach.
Front of house positions—bartenders and servers—have been easier to fill than dishwashers and cooks, Gough said. Some people decided to leave the restaurant industry amid the pandemic, according to Gough, who said many have not returned, and some never will. Additionally, it has become an employees market, allowing new staff to “try out” a position to see if they like it.
“Somebody shows up for a day or two, they go on break and they don’t come back,” Gough said. “That’s what happens commonly. They’ll [get] a job somewhere else because there’s a lot of opportunity out there.”
Throughout the pandemic, Gough said operators have had to roll up their sleeves and pitch in more around the restaurant while understaffed, including working on their days off. The goal was to maintain a consistent customer experience, Gough said.
The staffing challenges have led to considerable wage increases for restaurant staff, Gough said, noting that all area restaurants are competing for the same depleted labor pool. Adding to the financial stress of restaurateurs is the California minimum wage hike that takes effect on Jan. 1, he said—$15 per hour for businesses with 26 or more employees and $14 per hour for those with 25 or fewer.
Supply chain issues also have caused shortages for certain food items, much to the chagrin of restaurant owners, Gough said.
“I’ve made decisions to take things that I would never have accepted before,” Gough said. “We’re taking substitutions that are slightly different—lobster, beef. We’ve been playing this whole game of, ‘What do I need to change this week?’.”
When certain items are not obtainable, Gough said most restaurateurs opt for more expensive options that are similar, rather than downgrading the customer experience. That move eats into the eatery’s profitability, he said. Certain alcohols, including older scotches, also are hard to come by nowadays, Gough added.
Another challenge for restauranteurs is inconsistent sales, Gough said. Every new variant, along with the ever-shifting requirements like mask mandates, causes hiccups for the industry, he said. But, of course, it could always be worse.
“Every restaurant is thankful to be open,” Gough said, adding that he is hopeful for a stronger 2022. “The industry has always had its ups and downs. It’s pretty resilient. You just have to be flexible and make the best decisions that you can and just kind of go with it.”
The Convention Center, for its part, is starting the new year strong with Animé Los Angeles 17. The event sold out its exhibit space months ago and attendance is surpassing projections, Goodling said. The first half of 2022 looks “solid,” he added, with events like the Long Beach Comic Expo, Intersolar North America and the International Salon and Spa Expo.
Looking ahead, Goodling said he and his staff are excited for what’s to come. Most conventions book two years in advance on average, and the organization is back up to its pre-pandemic number of leads, he said.
“A lot of destinations are still not up to this level yet,” Goodling said. “We’re averaging 85 to 90 leads per month. We’re excited to be back serving our customers and finding new customers.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Charlie Beirne’s last name.