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The Arch and downtown from a helicopter tour

A view of the Gateway Arch and the St. Louis riverfront from a Gateway Helicopter tour June 15, 2011. (J.B. Forbes/Post-Dispatch)

ST. LOUIS • When more than 5,500 association executives hold their convention next month in St. Louis, it will give tourism officials a rare opportunity to pitch the city for future conventions.

From an economic development perspective, the gathering of the American Society of Association Executives, though modest in size, represents the mother of all conventions — because its attendees have the power to bring thousands more visitors to the city, along with millions in revenue, during future conventions. The visiting executives represent groups as diverse as the National Rifle Association, American Sociological Association and Electrical Apparatus Service Association, to name a few confirmed attendees.

Though St. Louis, like many Midwest cities, struggles to compete with tourism meccas such as Las Vegas, New Orleans or Orlando, conventions nonetheless brought about 350,000 people and about $370 million into the local economy last year. And those figures leave room for growth, according to officials with the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, who plan to field a sales team to woo as many as 1,500 of the associations represented at the conference.

The conference, held Aug. 6-9, could bring as much as $5.7 million to the St. Louis economy. But the real impact of the conference lies in the future bookings by those attending.

The city hosted a total of 468 groups last year, according to the commission. America's Center convention complex hosted by far the largest gatherings, bringing in 42 of those groups and about 240,000 convention goers, accounting for about $250 million of the total revenue.

This year, America's Center will host 43 meetings, but the commission's chief marketing officer, Brian Hall, said the center can host more gatherings, particularly from late fall to early spring.

Kitty Ratcliffe, commission president, sees the ASAE conference as a crucial opportunity for St. Louis to introduce itself to visitors who might otherwise fly over the city.

For people living on the coasts, "St. Louis is thrown into the mix of Midwest cities," Ratcliffe said. "We need a differentiator."

The commission aims to present St. Louis as a first-tier city filled with culture, history and entertainment, but without the expense and congestion found in bigger destinations. Among the best assets of St. Louis, Hall said, are its location in the middle of the country and its ability to host gatherings of all sizes.

Moreover, the city is poised for a revival, Hall said. He bases that assessment on the $5 billion spent in the last decade to upgrade the infrastructure of downtown, giving the city a superior product to market. Hall, who moved here from Baltimore five years ago, said the friends who have visited came away pleasantly surprised with the amenities the city had to offer.

Ratcliffe said a sales team from the convention will be out in force during the conference, targeting potential clients. In addition to singling out certain executives for a pitch and conducting site tours, the commission has partnered with Build-A-Bear for its booth during the exposition, a strategy employed at previous ASEA conventions in other cities. At the 2010 conference in Los Angeles, 900 people waited in line over two days to come to the booth, with the sales team chatting up potential clients as they waited. This year, people will create their own stuffed cats and dogs because the charity component of the conference benefits Stray Rescue of St. Louis.

Bill Schankel, the director of member marketing at the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers, will require little convincing. His organization held a leadership conference in St. Louis two years ago. Eager to return to the city for the ASAE conference, he plans to investigate St. Louis' capacity to accommodate 10,000 attendees should the telecommunications engineers return in the future.

But Schankel is an anomaly. A preliminary survey of ASAE conference goers revealed the majority of attendants have not been to St. Louis in 15 or more years. Amy Ledoux, senior vice president of meetings and expositions at ASAE, sees the conference as an opportunity to showcase improvements downtown and throughout the area.

In addition to making its case at the convention center, the commission will host events at the Gateway Arch and Missouri Botanical Garden. The city plans to close part of Washington Avenue downtown on the last night of the conference for a block party.

From there, commission officials said all they can do is step back and hope the executives' experiences brings them back — with their members in tow.