On October 18, 2008, the community gathered at the new Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center to cut the ribbon. With the building officially open, Anchorage’s convention center space increased more than 300%. The ceremony on that bright October day 15 years ago was the first of many events that would take place in the centers. Dena’ina Center has hosted international meetings and Alaskan weddings, welcomed presidents, the Foo Fighters, and Snoop Dogg.
By the Numbers
The 15th anniversary of the Dena’ina Center is an opportunity to look back at what the Anchorage Convention Centers – the Egan Center included – have done for Anchorage. Building the Dena’ina Center was a way to invest in the city and attract business and revenue for a new generation.
In the last 15 years, it’s estimated that the centers have hosted 7,403 conventions, meetings, and other events, with a total attendance well above 3.5 million convention center guests.
Combined, the Anchorage Convention Centers have generated an estimated total of more than $340.6 million in spending in the community from meetings and conventions delegates since 2008.
A Community Asset
Dena’ina gave Anchorage a place to host up to 3,000 people comfortably under one roof for a multi-day conference. That added capacity has been a boon to attracting national and international meetings, which typically book years in advance. In 2023 alone, the estimated economic impact of meeting and conventions – direct spending by attendees in the community – is $115 million, based on a model developed by Destinations International.
But in addition to hosting outside groups, the Dena’ina Center hosts local functions: weddings, civic meetings like Rotary and Chamber of Commerce events, as well as concerts, craft fairs, company holiday parties, charitable fundraisers, and educational seminars. Last week, Dena’ina Center again hosted First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth, and the Alaska Federation of Natives Annual Convention, two Alaska events central to the state and the community, as well as the Resource Development Council breakfast and a tradeshow for local tourism companies simultaneously.
This year, the convention centers are set to host a total of 527 events in just 365 days.
Upkeep, Improvements, and Maintenance
Dena’ina center has seen constant improvements during its life so far. With hundreds of thousands of people using the centers every year, there’s constant work to maintain the facilities, and a multi-year roadmap to continually improve user experience.
Recent improvements include upgraded lighting controls, A/V equipment, improved efficiency, replacement of the moveable dance floors – they see a tremendous amount of use from weddings and corporate events – and addressed general wear and tear imposed by welcoming hundreds of thousands of people every year.
New carpets and better projectors may not get a close look by attendees, but these improvements can mean the world to Outside meeting and event planners, who plan their work down to the cent per gallon of coffee and expect meeting spaces that provide easy use and look modern and inviting.
“Good-looking centers help us sell more meetings, conventions, and events, and in turn generate future bed taxes for upkeep – and contributing to the general fund,” said Saupe.
Back-of-house updates to HVAC or kitchen spaces don't get noticed, but one of the projects on tap will be an eye-catching addition: expanded art and interpretive information highlighting the heritage and culture of the Dena’ina Athabascan people.
Egan Center’s Second Act
The Dena’ina Center’s opening gave Anchorage another neat trick.
“Using Egan Center and Dena’ina together, we can host larger meetings than either facility could hold alone,” said Saupe. “It also gives us the option to welcome two separate groups simultaneously and gives our regular civic bookings a backup option when a larger outside meeting overlaps their dates.”
While Egan first opened in 1984, it’s seen a similar investment to keep it up-to-date: a new escalator, new snack bar, replacement of air walls, carpets, and lighting. It’s also home to one of the community’s largest rooftop solar arrays, generating 80 megawatts of power.
The Egan Center’s rooms were designed to be reconfigured in as many as 15 separate spaces. That flexibility makes it a good choice for events with many concurrent breakout sessions. The Egan Center has also developed another purpose, serving as a hospitality center for cruise ship passengers. Most ships in Southcentral Alaska call on Seward or Whittier, so travelers continuing on to Anchorage often have the Anchorage Convention Centers as their first stop in the community as the Alaska vacation continues.
The Dena’ina Center, like most convention centers, operates at a loss each year. The center’s rates are kept low to make it an enticing place to book a meeting. The real value is the direct economic spending of hundreds or even thousands of convention delegates, event attendees, or tradeshow customers.
“We work to maximize the use of the buildings and solve for three outcomes: the economic lift of meeting and event spending in the whole community, civic life, and the bottom line. Bookings and management of the centers would look different if solely intended to maximize the bottom line for building alone,” said Saupe.
The financial performance of the centers has exceeded expectations set prior to construction. Bonds to finance the actual construction of the Dena’ina Center sold more than 15 years ago on assumption of 1% growth in tourism each year. In the years since, it’s averaged around 10% growth.
Operations, maintenance, and upkeep at the Anchorage Convention Centers are covered by Anchorage’s hotel room tax collections – sometimes called bed tax. Bed tax collections are split evenly three ways: a portion of the collections go to the convention centers, another portion funds tourism marketing and promotions through Visit Anchorage, and an equal portion goes to the Municipality of Anchorage’s general fund.
Visit Anchorage is responsible for booking national and international meetings for the centers, as well as their work to market and promote the community to leisure travelers. A third-party contractor, ASM Global, is subcontracted to operate the centers day-to-day.
A Promise Kept
Anchorage’s municipal charter explicitly forbids spending property taxes on the construction or maintenance of the convention center.
“Property taxes shall not be used to finance the acquisition, construction, operation or maintenance of a new civic and convention center,” the charter reads.
Added in 2005, the passage means the centers only use reserve accounts to pay for maintenance and improvements. The funding model has always covered the operations and maintenance of the centers and in the event they did not, residents wouldn’t need to support the centers through property taxes. Visit Anchorage is obligated to backstop any shortfall.
The Next 15 Years
Future meetings already booked for the centers are worth millions in direct economic impact. Events ahead include Seismological Society of America and Northwest Public Power Association 2024, and the IEEE International Conference on Image Processing in September 2025.
“Booking national and international meetings means taking the long view. In-state groups tend to have a short booking window, but for Outside meeting planners, we normally work four or five years out – or more,” said Saupe.