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Boise is hosting its biggest-ever convention this week. Are we ready for the big time?

Boise's largest-ever convention fills up Boise Centre

The Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists is holding its largest-ever gathering in Boise this week.
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The Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists is holding its largest-ever gathering in Boise this week.

A lot is riding on the 1,525 epidemiologists who are attending their annual convention at the Boise Centre this week.

The convention is the largest ever held in Boise and could point to a future for bigger conventions coming to the city and taking advantage of the center’s nearly completed three-year, $47.5 million expansion adding more than 80 percent of new floor space for a total of 88,000 square feet. The new Residence Inn and Hyatt Place are adding more than 300 hotel rooms Downtown, with nearly 300 more under construction.

Boise Centre’s additional space puts Boise in position to compete for about 70 percent of the country’s convention business — meetings with up to about 1,400 people attending, said Pat Rice, Greater Boise Auditorium District’s executive director. That’s up from about 20 percent of the convention market, when the facility could host a maximum of 600 visitors.

But first, the auditorium district, Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Downtown Boise Association that worked to bring the convention to Boise have to convince those epidemiologists — who spend their careers tracking diseases — that the center is a worthy venue.

“If we pull this off, I think the word of mouth for groups is going to spread quickly,” Rice said.

The preliminary prognosis? Good, several epidemiologists told the Statesman.

“How can I say absolutely perfect. This has been absolutely fantastic,” said Jeffrey Engel, Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists executive director and a physician. Meeting rooms are easily accessible and the large rooms hold conventioneers with ease, he said.

“The facility is clean. Lots of bathrooms,” said Robin Williams, an epidemiologist with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

‘LAST-MINUTE’ CHANGE OF VENUE

The convention industry is a business with a long-term horizon. It will take several years for awareness of Boise’s expanded facilities, hotel rooms and ability to successfully host larger events to spread through the convention-planning world, which works years in advance.

Boise wasn’t the original choice for the epidemiologists’ 2017 convention. Raleigh, N.C., was going to host the convention, but the council pulled out over concerns about North Carolina’s law that required people to use bathrooms and locker rooms based on the gender listed on their birth certificate instead of gender identity. The state has since tweaked the law.

$281 Average amount an out-of-town convention attendee spends each day in Boise.

With just 11 months until its convention — barely a moment in convention-planning time — the council reached out to Boise, which was still building its expanded convention space. The auditorium district agreed to be done in time. Six months out, as Engel toured the facility, carpets were still being laid and escalators weren’t in place.

But Boise delivered. “They are in, and it is beautiful,” Engel said.

The auditorium district was created in 1959 with the goal of building facilities to draw visitors to Boise. It collects the 5 percent hotel tax to pay for its works. Larger conventions mean more dollars coming into Boise, especially in restaurants, hotels and shops.

Rice estimated that people attending the convention will spend $2 million during their stay, which ends Thursday. The epidemiologists booked 1,000 rooms scattered across 13 hotels for the convention’s peak days.

“The economic activity that meeting and specials events bring to Downtown in going to increase dramatically,” said Lynn Hightower, Downtown Boise Association executive director said.

HELPING VISITORS FIND LUNCH

Kevin Settles, owner of Bardenay restaurant on the nearby Basque Block, added a couple of staff members to handle hungry convention attendees who are not getting food at their meetings. While conventions aren’t a key ingredient in Settles’ restaurant, he considers it all “plus” business. And he’s grateful the Downtown Boise Association alerted restaurants that the people attending the convention will be looking for places to eat lunch and dinners.

The one complaint from the epidemiologists in Boise: They can’t access the flood-soaked Boise River Greenbelt.

The convention center and the visitors bureau provided volunteers to hand out maps showing visitors where restaurants and shops are located, so they could quickly eat and still make it back for their meetings.

Now that Boise has a bigger convention meeting place, Rice and others are getting to the business of marketing it.

Expansion means the center can hold larger conventions, such as the three-day Idaho Education Technology Association meeting in February 2018 with 800 people. But it also means the center can hold a couple of small conventions, say of 500 people each, at the same time, Rice said.

Getting a steady stream of larger conventions, however, is likely to take about three years, the average planning time for associations to set up conventions, Rice said.

“We’re coming after them,” he said.

Expanded convention center draws praise from epidemiologists meeting in Boise.

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