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BIO leaders want to return to Boston

Organizers of the BIO convention said the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center was no longer big enough.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Organizers of the BIO convention said the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center was no longer big enough.

As they closed out their convention Thursday after four days of meetings, panels, and parties that drew more than 16,500 industry professionals to Boston, leaders of the Biotechnology Industry Organization said they want to come back later this decade — if they can get more exhibition space and other accommodations.

“We would love to return to Boston,” said organization president James C. Greenwood. “It is a great biotech community and a great host city, but we have not locked in a date yet as we need the expansion of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center before making a commitment.”

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Next year’s convention will be held in April at Chicago’s McCormick Place, which is much larger than Boston’s facility.

Jim Rooney, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, said his organization has a contingency agreement with the organization to host the convention in 2018. But the deal contains a “walkaway clause” that would let the group go elsewhere if the authority cannot add space for exhibitors and programs, as well as more hotel rooms in the South Boston waterfront area.

While this week’s main BIO convention was centered in the 2.1 million-square-foot convention center — the largest building in New England — spillover events were held at the World Trade Center, the Hynes Convention Center in Back Bay, and the Westin Waterfront Hotel because the convention center itself wasn’t big enough to accommodate all events, Rooney said.

“We're hoping BIO can come back to Boston to a bigger venue,” he said. “BIO spends over $1 million busing people all over the city because we don’t have hotels nearby. We have 1,700 hotel rooms within walking distance while competing cities have an average of 8,000.”

Rooney said the convention center authority has developed a master plan that would expand the already cavernous exhibition hall from 516,000 square feet to 850,000 square feet while adding a second multipurpose ballroom, more meeting space, and at least 4,300 nearby hotel rooms. That plan would have to be approved by the Legislature.

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Some have cast doubts on the authority’s expansion plans. Public policy consultant Charles Chieppo, a former authority board member who is principal at Chieppo Strategies in Needham, said the cities across the country have overbuilt convention space and hotels even as the number of people attending US conventions has dropped over the past decade.

“The reality is we’d be building essentially a second city in terms of new hotels and expanding a massive convention center just because BIO might come in six years,” Chieppo said. “And BIO isn’t growing anymore, regardless of what the spin is in the convention authority.”

This week’s convention attracted fewer people than the 22,500 who attended in 2007, the last time the group held its annual gathering in Boston. But there were more programs and larger exhibitions, and a record 25,291 partnering meetings hosted by the organization.

“The buzz was consistently positive from attendees representing all different areas of biotech,” Greenwood said.

Susan R. Windham-Bannister, president of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, which manages Governor Deval Patrick’s life sciences initiative, said more than 100 meetings were scheduled during BIO at the 7,700-square-foot Massachusetts pavilion, the largest in the exhibition hall. Thousands of other people dropped by during the week, she said.

“We had to call on the second day and ask for additional support in the booth to handle all the traffic,” Windham-Bannister said. “We had delegations come from Korea, Japan, the Nordic countries . . . It was just incredible, the volume of people who came by to talk to us.”

Windham-Bannister said state officials met this week with “some very large companies that expressed some very serious interest” in setting up operations in Massachusetts. While those discussions have yet to be completed, she said, Massachusetts officials hope to announce new arrivals to its life sciences cluster in the coming year.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

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