Fort Worth attracted 8.8 million visitors last year in booming tourism market

The Fort Worth Convention & Visitors Bureau has booked the largest convention in its 51-year history, an event that will bring thousands of youth to the city beginning in a few years, the agency’s top executive said Wednesday.

Bob Jameson, president and chief executive, told more than 750 people attending the agency’s fourth annual meeting that the National Beta Club, the largest independent, nonprofit educational youth organization, will meet in Fort Worth starting in 2020. This year, the organization said it anticipates 15,000 attendees at its five-day meeting in Orlando, according to its website.

The announcement came as CVB officials reported significant growth in the city’s convention and tourism industry and made another pitch to move forward with rebuilding the north end of the convention center complex and adding another hotel.

In all, 8.8 million visitors came to Fort Worth last year, including 440,000 from outside the country, up 35 percent from 6.5 million in 2014. Jameson said the industry had a $2.3 billion economic impact on the city.

“We need to replace the flying saucer with flexible, modern meeting space,” Jameson said, referring to the portion of the center targeted for changes. “Demand is high. The next step in this industry is for growth in these facilities, and that is not a matter of why and how, but a matter of when. We have to keep our sights set.”

He said the city has missed out on $190 million worth of convention business because the current facility didn’t have enough room. Discussions about replacing the aging portion of the convention center has been ongoing for more than two decades.

Last March, the city put plans for a new 1,000-room convention center hotel on the back burner when two developers invited to submit proposals declined to do so, in part because the city was unable to commit to economic incentives. That project now might not happen until after 2025, when the city is able to take on more debt.

The hotel can’t be developed until after the convention center expansion is completed. That project involves straightening Commerce Street on the east side of the convention center. The expansion is part of a twofold plan that includes construction of the $450 million multipurpose arena at the Will Rogers Memorial Center in the Cultural District. Construction on that is anticipated to start in March.

Wednesday’s CVB meeting featured an appearance by Grammy-nominated singer Leon Bridges, who was presented with the 2017 FWCVB Hospitality Award. The breakout soul artist from Fort Worth was honored for raising the profile of the city during his world tour. Bridges stayed after the event for quite some time, taking pictures with scores of fans who lined up to see him.

“I get to travel a lot, but I still take pride in being able to call Fort Worth my home,” Bridges said. “I’m vocal about Fort Worth because I’m from here.”

Conventions increase

The CVB has doubled the number of large conventions it attracts to Fort Worth in the last couple of years. In 2016, the tourism industries contributed $116 million in sales tax to city coffers, up from $111 million in 2015, he said.

Jobs related to tourism and convention businesses now stand at 22,600, up slightly. Hotel occupancy citywide has reached 70 percent.

This year, the CVB will host 11 major conventions, double what’s been held in 2015 and 2016. These are in addition to the numerous other meetings and conferences held here. Convention and conference business is typically booked several years in advance of the actual event.

“There is an excitement about the city and a sense of opportunity that exists right now,” Jameson said. “Our visitors have more things to do than ever.”

One that will continue through 2022 is the Kenneth Copeland Ministries’ Southwest Believers’ Convention, he said. The organization has hosted its annual gathering in Fort Worth for 35 years. It typically draws about 8,000 attendees over seven days.

Contributing to the growing interest in Fort Worth is business connected to the film and sports markets, two areas the CVB has been focusing on, Jameson said.

In October, the Fort Worth Film Commission turned a year old and to date had about 150 inquiries about filming in Fort Worth. That led to about 70 projects, including some commercials. Recently, AIG employed 50 local actors for a commercial, and Frost Tower, the 25-story office tower under construction, was used in filming A Ghost Story, a David Lowery film that premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

The U.S. Sports Congress, which attracts top-level decision-makers from the world of amateur sports, held its annual meeting in Fort Worth in December 2015 and at that time the CVB put in 22 bids for various NCAA championship events in the coming years.

And beginning this year and running through 2019, the National Reined Cow Horse Association said it will hold its Snaffle Bit Futurity, one of the largest and most prestigious events in the Western performance horse industry, at the Will Rogers Equestrian Center.

“We expect that to be a $7 million economic-impact event alone,” Jameson said.