Unconventional Wisdom

For Boston, it was an unaccustomed bit of kitschy showmanship. But Charlie Greco is an unconventional guy.

Greco's Big Announcement wouldn't be made at City Hall or at the State House, both of which were offered to him. He would stage his drama on an indoor basketball court near his old haunts in the North End. He hired an actor to play Paul Revere. And while the news wasn't as momentous as the prospect that the British were coming, it did bring with it the promise of an estimated $80 million economic impact for the city. “MacWorld is coming!” the actor shouted, riding through the streets. “MacWorld is coming!”

Odds were slim that anyone who saw the horse and rider had any idea what MacWorld is. No matter. Greco, who has the mannerisms of a Joe Pesci character, was in full regalia for his triumphant homecoming, wearing one of his trademark $6,000 Brioni suits made out of material so shiny “you could comb your hair in it,” as one of the attendees recalls. In a way, this day was to be a reflection of Greco's hardscrabble career. It had taken the combined power of the mayor and the congressional delegation to lure the Democratic National Convention to town, a hard-won victory that will end up costing the state nearly $18 million. The cultlike gathering of Apple Computer users and suppliers called MacWorld is expected to generate more than half as much money as the political convention, but at no cost whatsoever to taxpayers — and Greco was bringing it to Boston single-handedly.

He had been relentless. He reportedly negotiated a cut-rate deal for the still-unfinished convention center in South Boston, which is desperate for business, and with the Teamsters local representing trade-show workers. He got the mayor to strong-arm hotel managers into reducing their notoriously high room rates. He raised the heat still higher on the hotels by suggesting he might bring in cruise ships, dock them in South Boston, and use them to house guests. “Shall we say, the hotels were pliable after that,” Greco says.

Chagrined might be a better word. “Charlie's a character, but he's a very good businessman who knows which buttons to push,” Art Canter, director of the association that represents the state's hotels, says diplomatically. “Of course,” Canter can't resist adding, “he had his own issue to deal with.”

That would be the little problem signaled by the chirp of Greco's cell phone just as he, Mayor Tom Menino, and other notables were marching into the North End hall behind the Roma Band, a collection of musicians that plays at Italian street festivals, which Greco also hired.

Greco put the phone to his ear and went pale. “He seemed a little taken aback,” remembers Cecily Foster, the mayor's director of special events, tourism, and film who was standing nearby. “He said, 'I shouldn't have taken that call.'”

At the other end was Apple, telling Greco that it didn't approve of moving MacWorld back to Boston from New York. And while the cutting-edge computer maker may be somewhat less of a force these days than, say, Microsoft, it was the convention's principal reason for existing. Weakened in the marketplace or not, Apple's 11th-hour decision was enough to spoil Greco's moment.

Greco went on with the news conference as if nothing had happened. But he was shaken. Apple had given him no warning, he says, even though he had discussed the plans for a Boston show with the company throughout the negotiations. “I talked to them the night before, and they could have told me then,” he says. “They blind-sided me.”

He was ready with a counterstrike as soon as he got back to his office at IDG World Expo, the technology trade-show subsidiary of the multibillion-dollar (and equally obscure) Boston-based International Data Group. In a blistering phone call, he told Apple that if the company didn't come to Boston, it would not be welcome at the West Coast MacWorld show in San Francisco, which he was also running. Two could play this game.

“I told them, 'We're prepared to live in a world without Apple,'” Greco says. “'Are you prepared to live in a world without MacWorld?'”

Greco felt he had the high ground. Apple is the principal exhibitor at MacWorld, but there are some 325 other vendors. Attendees come to see what applications and peripherals are available not just from Apple but also from other suppliers in the Apple universe. Greco, characteristically, is sure that's just what made Apple ambush him — that the company was worried he was getting too strong. “The show has become so powerful they feel obligated to develop their product schedules around those events,” he says. “They used the hoopla of our moving the show to Boston as an excuse.”

It was just one chapter in the saga of the surprisingly cutthroat trade-show and convention business, a fiercely competitive but largely unnoticed industry that brings billions of dollars to Boston — and is more important than ever as tourism and business travel slow and policymakers try to justify spending $800 million on a new convention center.

In the end, says Greco, he's sure that Apple will be here “with bells on.” With MacWorld itself now set in stone, he took another step last month that could have even more of an impact on the city's conventions scene: Greco left IDG to take a similar position with Gartner, a still bigger player in the trade-show biz that specializes in shows just right for the existing Hynes Convention Center. Which puts him front and center in the looming battle to save the Hynes against Governor Mitt Romney's plans to sell it.

Greco has no doubts he'll convince the governor to see things his way. “I'm pretty aggressive about getting what I want,” he says.

Small engines of commerce will roam the streets of the Back Bay this month. Except for their geeky nametags, there will be little to distinguish them. Mingled with the usual shoppers and pedestrians, about 5,000 or so people from around the world will be attending something called the Bio-IT-World Conference & Expo, organized by Charlie Greco.

Their relative obscurity will be deceiving. They will enrich all strata of the city's economy. The medical research and high technology executives will fill hotel rooms, eat in restaurants, and shop the stores. They will feed the rolls of bills in cabbies' pockets and add to state and local coffers with the taxes they pay on their meals, their rooms, and the baubles they take home with them. Their presence will mean solid paydays for the workers who haul exhibits into the Hynes, set them up, break them down, and haul them away. All told, these conference-goers will leave behind some $5 million when they return to their offices and labs. In the long term, their pilgrimage to Boston may help foster the local biotechnology industry, which could someday rival the computer and Internet booms of the 1980s and '90s.

This year, Boston is scheduled to host some 90 conventions, meetings, and trade shows in all. Many will be small and esoteric: the Specialty Coffee Association of America annual conference next month, for instance, or the annual meeting of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery the month after that. It all adds up, however. Conventions and events at the Hynes alone bring in about $350 million a year; of that, $224 million goes to hotels and restaurants, $37 million to retail stores, $21 million to entertainment, and $23 million to taxis, limos, and other forms of transportation. The rest benefits the businesses that provide space, services, and supplies to the conventions.

The figure grows still higher when the calculus of exponential economics is applied. The hot dog eaten by a delegate provides revenues not only for the concessionaire but also for his wholesaler, supplier, and producer. When everything is taken into consideration, the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau estimates, the convention and trade-show business has a total economic impact here of $5.6 billion.

The sad truth, however, is that Boston is a convention-industry underachiever, well behind the likes of San Francisco, San Diego, and Atlanta. New York and Chicago do about twice as much business. Which didn't matter as much when the city's hotels were filled with free-spending business travelers and tourists. But that's no longer the case. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks and the start of the economic downturn, the number of business travelers has fallen 18 percent; the number of international visitors, 11 percent. That has cost the city an estimated 14,475 travel- and tourism-related jobs, and $1.2 billion a year.

Conventions can pick up the slack. Yet Boston's main convention hall, the Hynes, is a modest 193,000 square feet, one-fourth the size of both New York's Javits Center and the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Las Vegas, the big bear in the trade-show world, has a pair of million-square-foot convention centers. Boston's hotels are another Achilles heel, thanks to a combination of too few rooms and — until recently — those business travelers on their expense accounts, who made hoteliers ambivalent about offering discounts to conventioneers. Before the travel downturn, Boston had the nation's second-highest room rates; on any given night, half the city's occupied rooms were filled by corporate types. (You'd think hotel managers would have taken notice of the occupancy slump. In fact, last year, when the city bid for the 2006 convention of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — which draws 6,000 people — the apparent spoiler still was room rates. After local hotels balked at the idea of renting rooms for less than $150 a night, the association took its business to Las Vegas.)

MacWorld illustrates Boston's convention gap — and the efforts to fill it. When the show began here in 1984, it quickly became the city's biggest convention, eclipsing the International Seafood Show. But MacWorld's success would lead to its eventual departure. After 13 years, the show outgrew the city. No venue was big enough, so exhibitors were divided among the World Trade Center, the Bayside Expo Center, and the Park Plaza Castle. Attendees had to shuttle back and forth through Boston traffic. There were not enough hotel rooms in the metropolitan area, so some convention-goers had to make a daily trek from southern New Hampshire or Rhode Island. Finally, in 1997, MacWorld moved to New York.

The hope is that the long-delayed Boston Convention and Exhibition Center will allow for shows large enough that the city's convention business will rebound. With 516,000 square feet of exhibition space, it can accommodate conventions that bypassed Boston in the past. But the $800 million investment comes with no guarantees. New convention centers are going up all over the country, and other cities are not about to give up their edge.

The stakes are huge. It is estimated that each attendee to a high-end convention or trade show spends more than $300 a day. So a Democratic National Convention means $150 million; a well-attended MacWorld, close to $80 million in direct and indirect spending.

Little wonder that the battle for conventions and trade shows is so fierce — or that Charlie Greco relishes the struggle.

The 50-year-old Greco doesn't appear on the usual lists of Boston's movers and shakers. As colorful as he is, most people in this city have never heard of him. Yet his impact is profound.

A high school-educated son of the North End, Greco has endeared himself to some and angered others with his straight talk and aggressive negotiating tactics. “He's a tough negotiator people either love or hate,” says Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau president Pat Moscaritolo. “I would hate to play chess with him. He's always five moves ahead of everyone else.”

MacWorld, for example, could signal something even more important than the short-term economic impact. By moving MacWorld back to Boston, Greco gives the new convention center a high-profile opportunity to show it can handle a major exhibition. That's an important endorsement for a project whose critics have already dismissed it as a white elephant.

Standing in his Framingham office in his typical ensemble — shiny suit, power tie, blazing yellow suspenders — Greco is clearly proud to bring his success back home. “I won't deny there are economic reasons,” he says, “but it's also a kind of legacy for me.”

Greco's parents, Anthony and Maria, were part of the postwar flow of Italian immigrants to the North End. Like many other immigrants, the family faced hard times. Home was a three-room cold-water flat that Greco's sister and their parents shared with his grandmother. His parents worked at the Schrafft's candy factory in Charlestown. Greco remembers them coming home covered in a frosting of flour and sugar. On special occasions, his mother would sneak home chocolates in her bra to supplement the family's meager larder.

The North End's streets were mean in those days. Fearful their son would turn bad, Tony and Maria enrolled him in Catholic schools. Sometimes that meant lessons as tough as the ones meted out in the neighborhood.

Greco recalls getting caught cheating on a test in the seventh grade by Sister Tabula, an imposing nun with a legendary temper.

“She called me up to her desk, and, of course, in those days I was a tough guy so it didn't mean anything to me,” Greco says. Sister Tabula got his attention with a right hook. Young Charlie's nose began to bleed, and he was sent to the bathroom to stem the flow. When he returned, Sister Tabula had written a note home.

“I said to myself, Good, my mother will come in here and show her, goddammit,” Greco says. But rather than showing contrition for striking their son, the nun had merely apologized for the blood on his shirt. “I went home and took another beating from my mother and father, who said there must have been a good reason for a nun to hit me.”

That pretty much soured Greco on formal education. He preferred to go fishing for smelt from the South Boston docks with his friends. Though his parents pushed him to get a university degree (if he didn't, his mother liked to tell him in Italian, “You'll walk around with a brown bag every day and work the construction site”), Greco dropped out of Bentley College after three months. “I just wasn't having it,” he says. “I hated school, and I wanted to work.”

A friend talked him into a job at the offices of Stop & Shop on D Street in South Boston, working in the “IBM room,” as data operations were known back then. The job was entrée to what passed for high technology in 1971. Orders, payments, and billing were keypunched onto cards and fed into noisy readers, whose sound Greco still imitates with the enthusiasm of a kid pretending he's a race car. Greco learned his job well and was soon put in charge of the operation. It was the start of a first career that would make him an internationally recognized name in the computer world.

Greco's break came when he was asked to modernize the computer system. He saw it made more sense to lease computers than to buy them, considering how quickly they were passing into obsolescence. He developed the equivalent of a Blue Book on computer equipment, helping businesses gauge the value of their used mainframes.

This simple tactic saved Stop & Shop millions and got Greco press in high-tech publications. He was recruited by the First National Bank of Boston, a prestigious job that lasted six months. “I was bored to death,” he says. In 1981, a new high-tech company, International Data Group, offered him a spot. Now married with three kids, Greco nonetheless traded the security of a job with the city's largest bank for the gamble with a struggling startup.

The gamble paid off. Greco and IDG rode the rocket of the computer boom. He was president of an IDG subsidiary by age 31, a recognized expert in computer financing and leasing. He advised the CEOs of Colgate-Palmolive, Citicorp, and Smith Barney. He gave speeches and seminars around the world, including in Rome. That one was of particular importance to him. “I felt I was going back to my roots, representing my family who had left to make a better life in the United States,” he remembers.

The North End kid was hobnobbing with the corporate elite. “One of the things you learned in my neighborhood was not to fear fear,” he says. “Intimidation was something I never experienced in those tender professional years when I was evolving. Nobody asked who I was or where I was from. All they were concerned about was the results.”

Still, Greco says he often felt like an outsider.

“I was at the top, but I couldn't be me,” he says. “Those cultures require a different type of persona. One probably a little bit more cerebral, a little bit less aggressive. I had to hold a lot of that in.”

At the pinnacle of his success, Greco wanted something different. He had gotten a taste of the conference and trade-show world by organizing the occasional meeting for his company. He was attracted to rough-and-tumble dealings with unions, politicians, vendors, and facility managers. “I said to myself, 'I like this shit,'” he says with his characteristic directness. “It was a space I could play in.”

Greco left IDG for a while to, as he puts it, become an IPO millionaire as president of a Waltham software company. He left after two years and, in 1998, came back to IDG to take over its lethargic trade-show subsidiary, IDG World Expo.

In the next four years, Greco expanded the business from an empty shell with two employees to one of the largest high-tech trade-show companies in the world, with more than 70 employees and annual revenues of $80 million.

Greco moved further up the ladder last month when he took his new job with Gartner. The events business he will now head has 150 employees worldwide, says Greco, and posted revenues of $122 million last year. The move came after changes at IDG, where longtime CEO Kelly Conlin had left, replaced by Patrick Kenealy.

“It's another bump up,” says Greco. “It gives me an opportunity to run an even bigger operation.” And, he says, to bring new business to his hometown. “There's a lot more I can do and a lot more I can contribute,” he says.

The new Boston convention center has 23 contracts for shows after 2004, more than half of them signed after Greco's MacWorld announcement. One, the American Supply Association plumbing trade show, will by itself bring 15,000 visitors to town.

“Charlie's decision was absolutely critical in helping us close the other business,” says Moscaritolo, the convention bureau president. “It gave other people confidence that someone who runs some of the largest trade shows in the country chose Boston.”

There remain some problems to confront. Chief among them is the fact that lucrative high-tech conventions have begun to see their turnouts fall. Attendance at MacWorld in New York last year was 58,000, down from 64,000 the year before. LinuxWorld saw attendance drop from 20,000 to 17,000.

Greco says he isn't worried. He takes satisfaction, he says, in a journey that has gone full circle. He thrills at the sight of the new convention center rising against the skyline of his youth. “It means a lot to me to go visit the very place I sat with a kerosene lantern at 4 o'clock in the morning to go smelt fishing,” he says. “I played on those streets with my friends growing up, and now I can come here and say, 'My God, I brought MacWorld here.'”