Conference business: The convention capital of the Americas

Chaotic, sprawling and vast, São Paulo is hardly up there with Honolulu or Paris as a must-see city for convention-goers. Yet, it has become a leading destination for events in the Americas.

Increasingly, it is capitalising on the influx of visitors to enhance its cultural offerings and tempt people to stay a little longer and spend a little more.

It is hard not to underestimate the scale of São Paulo. The city has an economy the size of Hungary or New Zealand, notes Caio Luiz de Carvalho, president of SPTuris, the city’s tourism promotion agency.

Each year, this city of nearly 20m plays host to 90,000 events and the number is growing fast.

Last year proved to be a bonanza, with 1,214 new events, an increase of almost 45 per cent over the year before, attracting 12m visitors, according to the São Paulo Convention & Visitors Bureau.

This year, receipts from events and tourism should be up 7 per cent, says Mr de Carvalho.

The city reflects its diverse heritage with a mind-bogglingly eclectic array of happenings.

In November alone, São Paulo was slated to host an International Film Festival, the 8th São Paulo International Architecture Biennial, the 3rd Ibero-American Psychogeriatric conference, Brazil Design Week and the 3rd world congress on Sleep Medicine.

Within this free-for-all, the city has developed particularly strong niches in areas including medicine and pharmaceuticals, notes Ana Luiza Masagão Menezes, leader of the sales and marketing board for Marriott in Brazil.

Technology and communications are growing too. And she is noticing a tendency for more economic and financial events in Marriott‘s hotels as São Paulo emerges as a financial hub in Latin America.

Much comes down to better organisation and capitalising on what the city already has. The government has broken down the city by destination with event and hotel zones, for example, notes Ms Masagão.

Promotional bodies are organising more and improving information they provide and these initiatives are bearing fruit, she says.

To keep ahead of its game, the city is pushing ahead with a $700m convention area in the west of 4.8m square metres to host exhibitions, conferences and meetings as well as a new football stadium and a slew of new hotels, says Mr de Carvalho. A smaller cultural centre is being developed in the east of the city close to transport links.

Infrastructure has grown accordingly. The city boasts 42,000 rooms, with the plan to boost that to 50,000 by 2014 in time for the World Cup, notes Mr de Carvalho, who is fond of making comparisons with the city’s arch-rival in the Americas, New York City.

He notes that São Paulo not only has as many hotel rooms but as many taxis as the Big Apple. And all these events mean it is the most visited destination in South America.

Spotting an opportunity, the authorities have been leveraging this influx of visitors to expand tourism and turn São Paulo into an attractive destination in its own right.

Lacking the beaches of glamorous Rio de Janeiro and without the rich historical attractions of Buenos Aires, São Paulo has never managed to sell itself convincingly.

But a judicious decision to push and fund more cultural events to encourage visitors to linger a day or two is paying dividends.

Amid all the optimism, the city groans under huge social and logistical problems that hold back growth. There are close to 6m cars and traffic is appalling, admits Mr de Carvalho.

The situation in the air is little better, adds Ms Menezes. Although the city is a hub for Latin American flights, the timings of arrivals are poor and guests cannot be sure how long it will take to get to their hotels.

The city’s airports suffer from antiquated infrastructure and inadequate links to the city.

Mr de Carvalho says the city is spending at a ferocious rate to try to reverse years of underinvestment.

Plans to spend R$34bn (US$20bn) to extend the metro and overground train lines and link them together better, build a high-speed train to the airport and improve key roads have all been accelerated, so they are ready for the 2014 World Cup, he says.

If they can brave the city, conference-goers should find a rich cultural stew.

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