WASHINGTON - An early March sunset haloed the White House, the Jefferson Memorial, and the Washington Monument, but Jack Ferguson never got to see that tourist-postcard scene from atop the Hays-Adams Hotel.

Instead, he was in Washington, where many U.S. trade groups have headquarters, to sell Philadelphia - the city's soon-to-be-expanded Convention Center, to be precise. And he was working the crowd at breakneck speed.

"First, we came here to see you. Second, we came to get your business," said Ferguson, executive vice president of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. Then he began narrating a virtual video tour of the grand new space projected onto a giant screen.

Being wooed under a white rooftop tent were the American Occupational Therapy Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the American Public Transportation Association - in all, 90 organizations invited to the first of several missions this year to drum up business for the center's $786 million expansion.

With each group came the potential for generating millions of dollars in booked exhibit and convention space, hotel rooms, restaurant receipts, and revenue for such venues as the African American Museum and the National Constitution Center - not to mention adding to the current 58,000 jobs in the city's hospitality industry.

Selling more than 1 million square feet of space is daunting in normal times, but in a recession you have to pull out all the stops, said Ferguson, whose agency has an office in Washington.

So between March 2 and 4, he made 5,800 phone calls while traversing the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, set up 80 meetings in person, and had at least four appointments a day.

In addition, six-person teams - representing a mix from the city's hotels, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority - made sales calls all over Washington, northern Virginia, and Maryland, he said. All told, the three-day trip generated 25 requests for proposals.

When it makes its expected debut next March - construction is about 75 percent complete now - the enlarged Convention Center will house what is being billed as the largest ballroom on the East Coast. It will be the 14th-largest convention center in the United States, bigger than even New York's.

More than $2 billion in business already has been booked for 2011 and beyond.

Ferguson will assume the top job at the Convention and Visitors Bureau in January, shortly before the official unveiling. The bigger, bolder Convention Center is his baby.

But he traveled to Washington not so much to generate new business as to steal it from cities such as Boston and San Diego, often mentioned in the same breath as Philadelphia when big-time gatherings are planned.

Even smaller cities are a threat these days, he said: "Planners who traditionally book first-tiered cities like Philadelphia, Boston, and D.C. are also looking at Pittsburgh, Charlotte, and Hartford, Conn., if the destination can meet their needs."

Meetings and conventions expenditures declined 14.6 percent last year compared with 2008, according to the U.S. Travel Association, and generated 8.7 percent less in tax revenue as companies, associations, and exhibitors cut back.

The recession also has made meeting planners and exhibitors more selective and value-oriented - folks like Ross Hoff, conference director for the International City/County Management Association, which books its annual conventions eight years in advance.

"Local governments have been hit hard by the economy," Hoff said at the Washington gathering, "and when they're contracting and losing employees, we need to be particularly mindful of the location."

He cited significantly reduced attendance for his group's convention in Montreal last year. It drew 40 percent fewer participants than the association's 2008 conference in Richmond, Va., Hoff said, "in part because of perception."

"Most of our members are in the U.S., and an out-of-country location can be perceived by taxpayers as extravagant when the local government is undergoing cutbacks."

Philadelphia is competing with Baltimore for his group's 2018 convention, Hoff said; a decision will be made this summer.

That gave Ferguson an opening. "I would assume Baltimore is competing hard. But our new Convention Center almost doubles in space," he said. "It's really going to be a spectacular space."

Without that extra square footage, Philly would not even be in the running, said Lenay Gore, director of meetings and conventions for the American Public Transportation Association, which has 1,500 member groups, including transit agencies and the businesses that supply them.

"We need the expansion to consider Philadelphia," she said after watching Ferguson's video presentation. "Our trade show is huge because we have buses and potentially double-decker train cars in the showroom."

Gore's group also is considering San Diego; Anaheim, Calif.; Los Angeles; Atlanta; and Orlando for its 2017 and 2020 expos.

Weighed in the group's final decision, besides the Convention Center's rates, will be the support of the local transit agency, food and beverage pricing, and hotel costs, she said.

Typically, about 40 percent of the 10,700 hotel rooms in Center City are filled by conventions and groups. That is why representatives from 13 of the city's 44 hotels, including the Ritz Carlton and Loews, accompanied Ferguson on his sales trip.

The American Chemical Society - a critical client for the Convention and Visitors Bureau - will return to Philadelphia in 2012 and 2016. At its 2008 meeting, 15,000 society members booked 26,000 hotel rooms over five nights and generated $32.3 million for the city.

The 161,000-member group was scouting for a 2020 destination, with Philadelphia competing against San Antonio, Texas; Atlanta; and Orlando.

Ferguson and Ahmeenah Young, president and chief executive officer of the Convention Center Authority, double-teamed the chemical society's assistant director of meetings and exhibits, Willie L. Benjamin II.

They went through colorful brochures that broke down the new center's dimensions with Benjamin, and gave him his own DVD virtual tour.

"The front of the building is meant to be a pedestrian experience," Young said, pointing to the computer screen, her finger guiding the tour. "Additionally, we're all working to create a Convention Center District to make those paths even more accessible."

An attentive Benjamin nodded. "For us, we're a walking group. That's a plus," he said. "The more I can cut back my shuttle [costs], the better."

Not missing a beat, Ferguson chimed in: "And the infrastructure of Philadelphia keeps improving. That's why it's a complete package."

"I'm sold on the changes," Benjamin said. He plans to make a presentation about Philadelphia and the competing cities to his members in a couple of weeks.

In April, meanwhile, Ferguson and company will hit Chicago, to make their sales pitch all over again.

The New Space: By the Numbers

After the expected opening of the expansion next March, the Convention Center will have:

More than 1 million square feet of sellable space.

Contiguous exhibit space totaling 528,000 square feet.

A new 55,400-square- foot ballroom, being billed as the largest on the East Coast.

Seventy-nine total meeting rooms.

Source: Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau


To take a virtual tour of the expanded Convention Center, and to watch a video promoting the city and the center, go to http://go.philly.com/convention


Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or sparmley@phillynews.com.