The Economic Impact of Catholicism’s Biggest Conference

By Natalie Dupuis, October 8, 2015

Bringing the World Meeting of Families to Philadelphia was one of the greatest undertakings in its history. The logistical challenges of hosting 17,000 people for a week (not including the projected 1.5 million coming to town for the papal visit) were tackled head-on by WMOF Executive Director Donna Crilley Farrell and her staff. She partnered with the well-oiled team at the Philadelphia CVB, led by President and CEO Jack Ferguson.

“This is a global event, and I’m not talking about the pope’s visit,” says Ferguson. This year’s conference was the largest WMOF to date, with day-of registrations putting the estimated attendance at 20,000 toward the end of the weeklong event. “We’re on the world stage. There’s no doubt about that.”

Hosting WMOF cost the city of Philadelphia more than $12 million, all of which will be paid back by the conference by Nov. 30. Broken down, that number accounts for the cost of police, the fire department (including medical services), fees for sites like Benjamin Franklin Parkway, as well as the cost of food vendor inspections by the health department and other fees from the streets department, such as sanitation services.

The projected economic impact of the convention itself on the city of Philadelphia is $29 million, with an additional estimated $390 million on top of that due to the papal visit.

While Ferguson, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and other city officials were excited by those projections, some local business owners were less than impressed by the impact they saw—or rather, did not see—on their sales.

The expectation may have been too high, causing business owners to overanticipate how much extra business they would receive. A taxi driver at Philadelphia International Airport says, “It’s been way slower than even our normal days. Everybody closed their offices for the week, so no one’s in the city. No one needs a ride anywhere.”

However, due to the high level of security, very little food or drink was allowed within the authorized perimeter of the papal events. Judging by the lines out their doors, restaurants and food vendors within that secure area didn’t share the same qualms.

With streets void of any vehicles other than bikes, native Philadelphians who ventured out of their homes enjoyed the carnival-like atmosphere the city had all weekend. As Holly Otterbein of “Philadelphia Magazine” wrote, “Center City became a carless urbanist utopia, with people biking, jogging, playing football, picnicking and generally having an awesome time.”

While the official economic impact will take some time to calculate, Ferguson says he feels strongly it’s secondary to the emotional impact of hosting two massive events. “There is no way you could calculate that,” he says. “[Pope Francis] is the most well-respected person on the face of the earth. People follow him no matter what religion they are… you can’t put a price tag on that.”

Photo credit: Jeffrey Bruno

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