Business travel was one of the first things the coronavirus knocked out. Now it’s coming back, which is good news for everyone from hoteliers to downtown coffee shops to business card printers. It’s a welcome development for just about everyone except employees of Zoom, which announced layoffs of 1,300 people the other week.
I’ve got so many memories at Moscone Center: witnessing Steve Jobs debut the iPhone, seeing a team of Google Glass-equipped parachutists land on the building’s roof, restraining my Jack Russell Terrier as she barked in confusion at a Salesforce mascot during Dreamforce.
In 2019, cruise passengers contributed $27 million to the San Francisco economy. Those dollars are coming back, offsetting billions in lost tourism revenue
During the pandemic, The City’s largest convention center served as an emergency operations hub and later as a mass vaccination site. Now it’s back in gear for its original purpose. I’m too genteel to tell you about the exact body part the medical conference that opened Thursday convened to address, though I’m glad there are doctors who are dealing with ailments down there.
For the less squeamish, the biggest upcoming show is the Game Developers Conference, with 24,000 attendees expected for the March 20-24 event. That’s short of 2019’s event, which drew 29,000 attendees, but a big jump from last year, when 17,000 made it in person. One of the ways organizers have lured people back is dropping any option for remote attendance. (To appease fans of Zoom keynotes, GDC is holding a virtual event later this year.)
Hotel prices in the immediate vicinity of Moscone are spiking to $700, even $800 a night, though there are plenty of more affordable rooms if you care to walk more than a block. My recommended hack, if you have yet to book your trip: Stay at the lovely Stanford Court, advertised at $259 a night through the GDC housing website, and walk down to the Chinatown stop on the Central Subway. Just be prepared for a long wait before the train whisks you almost to the front door of Moscone.
I was curious about what the rest of the year looked like. Moscone Center had yet to post a list of events for the last four months of 2023 when I checked, but Ken Bukowski, who took over last July as The City’s director of convention facilities, told me that Moscone had “a very full schedule” for what was traditionally the busiest part of the year for conferences, and shared a calendar with The Examiner.
Prop. F may result in a perverse incentive to increase remote work
There’s Dreamforce, of course, from Sept. 12-14, with TechCrunch’s Disrupt startup-fest the following week. Oktane and Workday are also throwing software bashes. Bukowski’s particularly proud that Moscone’s hosting the 2023 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders Meeting, which Mayor London Breed said in November could bring $36.5 million in spending to San Francisco.
Are hotels raking it in with all these conferences? Not quite, because business is uneven. Moscone’s busy schedule should help. The City has more than 30,000 hotel rooms, Alex Bastian, the CEO of the Hotel Council of San Francisco, told me. That’s easily enough to house every expected GDC attendee, though things will get cramped if Dreamforce beats last year’s in-person count of 40,000 people.
City economist Ted Egan raised the alarm about a drop in hotel business in the last three months of 2022 after a strong fall that saw occupancy and rates rise. For the week of Feb. 5-11, revenue per available room, a key measuring stick for the hospitality sector, was down 55% from 2019 to $116, research firm STR reported.
It will take more than a few $800 bookings to bring that back up to pre-pandemic levels, but there are reasons for optimism. Bastian pointed to the recent J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in early January as a success: STR reported hotel occupancy above 80% for the week of Jan. 8-14 when the event took place, which was similar to 2019 levels, and a big jump in revenue per room. He’s heard positive signs about GDC as well. Even with some setbacks last year, The City now expects hotel tax revenues for the current fiscal year to come in $71 million above the budgeted forecast.
The one thing I wouldn’t count on are the likes of Apple or Google coming back to Moscone. Google’s gone mostly virtual, with a “limited” in-person audience invited to its 2022 I/O event held in Mountain View. Apple built its own theater, named after its late founder, so it can host its staged product rollouts at its Cupertino headquarters. Maybe my Moscone memories reflect a singular era of tech, one that’s slipping into the past. What matters is that San Francisco is still calling on people to come build the future.
Owen Thomas is a journalist and a longtime resident of San Francisco who has thought about tech’s relationship with The City since the first internet boom brought him to town. His columns appear weekly in The Examiner.