Victoria's Fairmont Empress Hotel says it recently lost the contract for a $200,000 conference because the B.C. capital's aggressive panhandlersbothered the American organizers.

The conference had originally been scheduled for last month at the Empress and the Victoria Conference Centre.

The general manager of the landmark hotel, Roger Soane, saidthat when the organizerscame to Victoria last summer, they were impressed, butwhen they returned in February for a second look, they had a different experience.

"They just came back and said to us, 'Look, it's a very different town and we've spent more time walking around downtown and felt that the quality of the shops and the aggressive panhandling that we encountered, we just could not bring the conference to Victoria.' "

Soane saidthe delegation compared Victoria's Government Street to the situation in Vancouver's troubled Downtown Eastside.

He saideveryone is looking out for the rights of panhandlers and no one is looking out for business owners.

"I feel sorry for the people who have a business on Government Street or the surrounding area when you have panhandlers sitting in their doorstep. Who's protecting their interests?"

Province should act, says VictoriaMLA

Victoria-Hillside NDP MLA Rob Fleming agrees panhandlers have become a major problem in Victoria, but adds the Liberal government has the power to get them off the streets.

"It's all added up to a perfect storm that is creating suffering right on our streets," he said.

"The fact that it's affecting business, retailers and possibly tourism, I think is a wake-up call.If the government won't respond in a compassionate manner, then maybe they will in an economic one."

Soane won't identify the company that cancelled the conference, only that it isbased in Washington, D.C.