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Economic arenaPa. Farm Show Complex & Expo Center continues to diversify, increase occupancy

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The 2012 Pennsylvania Farm Show saw record attendance on several days during the eight-day January event, held at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center in Harrisburg. Photo/Amy Spangler
The 2012 Pennsylvania Farm Show saw record attendance on several days during the eight-day January event, held at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center in Harrisburg. Photo/Amy Spangler

Agriculture is engrained in its name and remains at the heart of the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center's charter to promote this top industry.

Unlike most government-owned facilities, however, this dominating presence along Harrisburg's North Cameron Street is out to make a profit and compete not only with regional convention and expo centers but like-minded venues across the country.

In a time of conservative government spending, the complex, with its sprawling exhibition space of nearly 1 million square feet, is charting a path similar to others in the industry to bolster revenue and economic impact.

Facility officials and sales staff with the Hershey Harrisburg Regional Visitors Bureau are building on the complex's base of agricultural events, while targeting major youth sporting events and faith-based groups, which have association and conference events.

"With huge events comes the family, and with the family comes economic impact," said Sharon Altland, the bureau's sales director, who estimates the complex adds about $500 million annually to the regional economy because of visitor spending.

The efforts are paying off thanks to the farm show's flexibility on space needs, proximity to major highways, throngs of hospitality properties on the East and West Shores and key attractions that include the nearby Pennsylvania State Capitol, Hersheypark, a casino and horse-racing track, and numerous outdoor adventure activities.

Plus, Amish country in Lancaster County and the Gettysburg National Military Park are within a short drive.

Later this month, the complex will host the Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling Championships, the first year of a three-year commitment that figures to add $1.2 million each year in economic activity, according to the bureau.

The Keystone State Games continue this year and next year at the complex. The State Games of America expects to bring about 10,000 people to Harrisburg in 2013.

Those events have a combined $37.5 million economic impact on the region, but that's just the tip of the iceberg.

"We are constantly looking at what Richmond (Va.) is doing, or what Louisville is doing or Indianapolis," Altland said. "When you're looking at other destinations with similar facilities, such as Indianapolis, we look at the events they can host, and know we can certainly host them here as well."

The Illinois-based American Rabbit Breeders Association will bring its national convention to Harrisburg in October 2013. The Mennonite World Conference is coming in July 2015. These two multi-day events are expected to draw more than 15,000 people and generate $40.5 million in economic activity combined, the bureau said.

"Our fall, winter and spring seasons are pretty compacted," said Patrick Kerwin, the farm show's executive director. "Where we've been trying to grow new business is in the early summer and mid-summer."

The farm show complex hosts about 80 major events per year and more than 300 in all, Kerwin said. More than 1 million people are estimated to attend these events.

Roughly 600,000 to 700,000 of those attendees come for the Pennsylvania Farm Show in January and the Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show in February. The first is the largest indoor agricultural event in the country, generating annual economic impact of $89.2 million.

The latter is the largest sportsmen show in North America and the biggest commercial event at the complex. It boasts $74 million in economic activity, according to the bureau.

Since the 2004-05 fiscal year, the Harrisburg facility's revenue is up 17 percent, Kerwin said. Utilization days, or occupancy, inside the major halls of the venue increased to 76 percent last year, up from about 72 percent in 2006-07.

At the same time, officials have managed to curb expenses to $8.7 million last year compared with $8.9 million in 2006-07. Energy conservation efforts have played a big role in that, Kerwin said. Payroll costs have remained steady over that period at $5.3 million, despite rising union wages.

"We squeezed where we could," he said. "We want to operate it like a business."

The facility, which was expanded by 40 percent in 2001, employs about 60 full-time workers.

The state subsidy that the complex receives supports sponsored agricultural events, including the Keystone International Livestock Exposition, All-American Dairy Show and the Pennsylvania 4-H Horse Show.

"Our hotels in January rely on the Pennsylvania Farm Show. Our restaurants rely on it," Altland said. "These (agricultural events) are huge revenue generators for the region. As those people come in, they have to have a place to stay."

The Hershey-Harrisburg region has about 8,000 sleeping rooms.

York and Lancaster

With trade shows still suffering a bit following the recession and the decline in corporate travel, officials at the York Expo Center and Lancaster County Convention Center said they, too, are going after more sports-oriented and faith-based events.

"I think sporting events are a little bit recession-proof," said Steve Bohn, marketing manager at the York Expo Center, which draws more than 900,000 attendees to its events each year. "I think the first thing you cut in business is advertising and marketing budgets. That impacts the trade shows."

Before opening the 114,000-square-foot Toyota Arena in 2003, the expo center saw about 150 events annually, said Gene Schenck, president of the York Fair and York Expo Center. From 2005 to 2009, that number increased to about 225, attracting many larger events because of the arena's open floor plan.

Event totals were relatively flat during the recession, and remain so, Bohn said.

One of its new events this year is the Blue Chip USA Invitational Tournament, a youth girls' basketball event that is expected to bring more than 3,600 high school girls to York in July. The event is projected to generate more than $4 million in economic impact for the region, according to the York County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

A large motorcycle event known as White Rose Thunder also is coming to York. That event will be held in September and might bring up to 40,000 people over four days, Bohn said.

"I think we're starting to see some things move a little bit," he said about a travel rebound.

Of course, rising gas prices could affect attendance and hurt the industry.

The expo center's successes have been comparable to the farm show complex, said Anne Druck, president of the York County visitors bureau. It has maintained staples like street rod and train collector events while adding agriculture-related shows and sports events.

York has booked the 2014 Can-Am Police-Fire Games and is eyeing other youth events such as wrestling, Druck said.

Before the arena was built, a research study calculated the expo center's annual economic impact at $120 million, she said. With the arena, the bureau projected another $40 million.

There has not been an economic impact study commissioned yet for the Lancaster County Convention Center, which is in its third year.

"It's difficult to put together the metrics to know the value of each event," said Josh Nowak, director of sales and marketing for the center and the Lancaster Marriott at Penn Square, citing the diversity of its events.

In Freedom Hall, the convention center's 46,000-square-foot primary meeting and event space, more than 129,000 people were in attendance for 60 events in 2011, he said. Events range from volleyball and gymnastics competitions to state association meetings, corporate trade shows, faith-based conventions and home shows.

The convention center has averaged about 15,000 attendees per month, Nowak said.

Hershey

By comparison, Hersheypark visitation is about 2.5 million annually, said Garrett Gallia, a spokesman for Hershey Entertainment & Resorts Co. The Derry Township attractions see about 5 million visitors each year.

Including just visitor spending, the annual economic impact of the park, other entertainment venues, resorts and related attractions was about $1.2 billion, he said, citing 2004 data, the latest available. Hersheypark alone created $786.4 million in visitor spending in 2004.

Impact of tourism industry on Pennsylvania

The Harrisburg-Hershey Region ranked fourth in total visitor spending among 49 destination marketing areas in Pennsylvania with $2.43 billion, according to a 2010 state economic impact study prepared by Wayne-based Tourism Economics.

Lancaster County was fifth at $1.37 billion. The study was based on 2009 data, the latest available.

The tourism industry's total economic impact was $32.9 billion, according to the report. Total visitor spending was $31.1 billion — about $26 billion was leisure travelers.

The industry directly supported 283,000 jobs in Pennsylvania and 433,000 jobs in total in 2009. About 1 out of every 12 jobs across the commonwealth relies on traveler spending.

Transportation expenses accounted for about one-third of average traveler expenses in 2009, the report said. Food expenses were second at 21 percent, followed by recreation and shopping at 16 percent each and lodging costs at 13 percent.

The state average per travel party spending was $487.58 in 2009. The Dutch Country Roads region, or Central Pennsylvania, produced an average of $735 per travel party, according to the report.

Farm show funding on the decline

The Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center in Harrisburg is owned by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

As a result, it does not receive a share of Dauphin County's
5 percent hotel tax. The complex, which has nearly 1 million square feet under roof, receives an annual subsidy in the state budget to help cover operating expenses for state-sponsored events.

That allocation has gone down slightly every year since the 2007-08 budget, according to figures provided by the Department of Agriculture.

  • The farm show received: $3 million in 2007-08.
  • 2008-09 budget: $2.86 million
  • 2009-10 budget: $2.76 million
  • 2010-11 budget: $2.61 million
  • 2011-12 budget: $2.58 million
  • Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed 2012-13 budget: $2.45 million

Major events at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center

The Hershey Harrisburg Regional Visitors Bureau, which books and assists with event promotion at the facility, estimates the average person spends about $100 per day to attend events. Average spending per exhibitor is based on an estimate of at least $200 per day.

  • Pennsylvania Farm Show (annually in January): $89.2 million economic impact, more than 400,000 attendees and 300 exhibitors.
  • Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show (annually in February): $74 million economic impact, 200,000 attendees and 1,200 exhibitors.
  • Standardbred Horse Sale (annually in November): $46.4 million economic impact, 15,000 attendees.
  • Penn National Horse Show (annually in October): $36.5 million economic impact, 15,000 attendees.
  • Keystone State Summer Games (2011-13): $25 million economic impact over three years, 6,000 attendees per year.
  • Keystone International Livestock Show (annually in October): $24 million economic impact, 15,000 attendees.
  • American Rabbit Breeders Association (October 2013): $22.5 million economic impact, 7,500 attendees.
  • Mennonite World Conference (July 2015): $18 million economic impact, 8,000 attendees.
  • Fire Expo (annually in May): $16.7 million economic impact, 20,000 attendees.
  • 2011 National Junior Angus (June 2011): $12.5 million economic impact, 6,000 attendees.
  • State Games of America (2013): $12.5 million economic impact, 10,000 attendees.
  • All-American Dairy Show (annually in September): $9.5 million economic impact, 6,000 attendees.
  • Horse World (annually in February): $9 million economic impact, 20,000 attendees and 300 exhibitors.
  • PA Home Builders Show (annually in February): $8.3 million economic impact, 35,000 attendees and 500 exhibitors.
  • PA Christmas Show (annually in December): $7.4 million economic impact, 30,000 attendees and 500 exhibitors.
  • Christian Home School (annually in May): $6 million economic impact, 10,000 attendees.
  • MotorRama (annually in February): $5.6 million economic impact, 25,000 attendees and 300 exhibitors.
  • PA Junior Wrestling Championships (March 2012-14): $3.6 million economic impact over three years.
  • Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam (June 2011): $3.4 million economic impact, 15,000 attendees.
  • U.S. Junior Nationals Hershey Showcase, girls' basketball tournament (annually in June/July): $3 million economic impact, more than 250 teams.
  • Pennsylvania Garden Expo (annually in February): $2.8 million economic impact, 17,000 attendees.
  • Pennsylvania 4-H Horse Show (annually in October): $2.6 million economic impact, 5,000 attendees.

Click here to read the Economic Impact of Visitor Spending and the Travel and Tourism Industry in Pennsylvania.

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Jason Scott

Jason Scott

Jason Scott covers state government, real estate and construction, media and marketing, and Dauphin County. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at jscott@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JScottJournal. Circle Jason Scott on .

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