SAN FRANCISCO -- The opening of Moscone West, a 300,000-square-foot annex to San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center, is a bright spot during an otherwise dreary time for this city's travel and tourism industry.

"The meetings market is the least-volatile segment of our visitor base," said Mark Theis, vice president for conventions at the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Moscone West could not have come at a better time."

Hotel occupancy rates in San Francisco dropped from a high of 81.7% in 2000 to 65.4%

in 2002. Average daily hotel rates plunged from nearly $170 in 2000 to $146 in 2002, which is good news for travelers but not for struggling hoteliers.

To top it off, the city's annual number of visitors fell from 17.3 million in 2000 to 13.7 million in 2002.

There are some signs that 2003 may be a better year, according to Hank Biddle, vice president of Marriott Lodging for northern California and outgoing chairman of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"The downward slide has certainly slowed, and many of us think we've hit bottom," he said.

However, Biddle told a recent gathering of tourism industry leaders that he expects a turnaround to be "painfully slow."

The decline of tourism is of great concern to San Francisco, a city that depends on tourism for tax dollars, he said.

Local taxes generated from travel and tourism are down $131 million, or nearly 28%, since 2000, and the number of jobs sustained by visitor spending is down by 26%, meaning there were 21,500 fewer people employed.

"The turnaround may be on the near horizon," Biddle said. "We may be seeing the beginning of a slow, upward climb, thanks to a brighter economy, a weaker dollar, a more stable state of world affairs and the important focus by all of us in this industry to work smarter, increase our sales efforts and adapt our marketing strategies to the changing travel patterns."

The San Francisco CVB's goal, according to its president, John Marks, is to book 250,000 room nights a year that the city would not have been able to attract without the Moscone West annex.

Already, the bureau has made headway toward that goal, booking 89 groups at the annex through 2013, representing 1.18 million room nights.

"That includes 33 conventions we call 'saves' -- conventions we wouldn't have gotten without the new facility," Marks said.

Another 87 groups have indicated they will use Moscone West, he said.

The first major organization to use Moscone West for a convention was Meeting Planners International earlier this month.

The meetings planners gave a thumbs-up to the facility, the CVB's Theis said.

"The opening of Moscone West enables us to offer new exhibits and meetings space for new business that we couldn't accommodate in Moscone North and South," he said.

The facility will enable planners of midsize meetings and conventions to choose San Francisco and hold their events in a completely self-contained, free-standing building, Theis added.

"It also is a flexible and state-of-the art facility that easily can be custom-configured to fit a variety of meetings needs," he said. "Frankly, there is very little short-term space open in North and South [Moscone Center halls]. West now can drive incremental opportunities."

Moscone West is located across the street from the Moscone Convention Center at Fourth and Howard streets.

The addition of the three-story annex brings the Moscone Center's usable function space to 900,000 square feet.

The facilities that make up the convention center cover more than 20 acres on three adjacent blocks.

The center anchors the 87-acre Yerba Buena Center redevelopment district in a neighborhood that includes hotels, theaters, restaurants, museums and galleries.

Moscone West's design is dramatic and differs from many convention centers because of its glass walls and light-filled atrium.

The lobbies, which total 27,000 square feet, are wrapped in glass windows and can be used as prefunction space on each level.

There is more than a mile of movable walls than can be configured on the second and third floors into small meetings rooms or large exhibit space.

Although geared to midsize meetings looking for a stand-alone facility, Moscone West also will be used to accommodate groups using all three Moscone center buildings.

In the past, those groups likely would have had to move their events to another city because San Francisco could not accommodate their space requirements, said Theis.

The $187 million facility was developed through a bond measure by the city and county of San Francisco.

The bureau is responsible for booking the center, which is managed by Moscone Joint Venture, comprising SMG, a private firm specializing in the management of public assembly facilities, and TLC, a San Francisco hospitality management company.

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