More than a million dietitians, transcendental meditators, liquor dealers, radiologists, gynecologists, gourmet food connoisseurs and computer buffs walked through the Washington Convention Center's doors last year.

Yet, although the D.C. government-owned center attracted more conventioneers than ever expected, it has been losing about $6 million a year since it opened in 1982.

On top of that operating loss, the center's debt service cost the city an additional $6.3 million last year.

Washington Convention Center executives and District of Columbia officials, however, don't like to talk about the center's larger-than-projected annual deficit, which is the equivalent of approximately $16,900 a day.

"What we really like to talk about is the net tax benefit . . . to this community by new delegates and new dollars," said George W. Demarest Jr., who is paid $80,000 a year as the general manager of the center. Approximately 269,000 out-of-towners meeting at the convention center pumped an estimated $26 million into the local economy last fiscal year, including $10 million in city tax revenue, Demarest said.

"From day one, we said the building would not make money -- that it would be a revenue-generator for the city," said Austin G. Kenny, executive vice president of the Washington Convention and Visitors Association, which serves as the major sales arm for the center.

"From an economic-development point of view, it has certainly met or exceeded the original goals that we had outlined back when we were planning," said Kwasi Holman, director of the D.C. Office of Business and Economic Development. Convention Notes Compared

Nevertheless, the 800,000-square-foot, $100 million center at New York Avenue and Ninth Street NW appears to be losing more money than its competitors of similar size. San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center, which opened in January 1982, lost about $3 million during each of its first three years.

In its first year, the New Orleans Convention Center is projecting an estimated loss of $3 million. The Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta lost about $1 million its first year, $648,000 its second year and earned a profit of $106,000 its third year.

A 1978 study by Gladstone Associates projected that the D.C.center would lose approximately $1 million in its first year and about $500,000 annually once it was fully booked; center officials say it already is fully booked.

"Our deficit is larger than we anticipated," said Kenny. "But you have to be careful when you compare one center to another. It's like comparing apples and oranges because there is no uniform code of accounting."

Large capital expenditures on theater-style seats, electrical work, enhanced acoustics and a marquee were the primary reasons for the larger-than-projected deficit, according to Michael C. Rogers, deputy general manager of the center.

"While our expenditures are high, our business is . . . brisk er than anticipated," said Rogers. "So, naturally, if your business is two or three times more than was projected, you have expenditures and personnel costs that are associated with that."

The center is projecting another $6 million deficit for fiscal year 1986-87, but its managers are optimistic that operating expenses can be cut now that major capital expenses are out of the way.

Still they will not project when, if ever, the center will reduce its deficit or break even. "Will we hit that $500,000 consistent deficit that was projected?" asked Rogers. "I'm not going to make any predictions."

While the center has attracted more national conventions and trade shows than expected, many of the show managers complain that future convention planners may be discouraged because the building is too small, the two-story design is complicated for large groups, the food is mediocre and there aren't enough hotels nearby.

"The Washington center just wasn't large enough," said Daniel J. Sladek, exposition manager of the World of Concrete Exposition & Conference held in February 1984. "We would be committing economic hari-kari to go back to the center because our show has grown so much."

The American Heart Association, which brought 21,759 delegates here in November, also faced an exhibition space squeeze. "We were able to just fit in with a shoehorn," said Dick Schein, the group's director of meetings, conventions and exhibits. "We used about every nook and cranny of the center."

Convention center officials acknowledge that the building's 378,000 square feet of exhibit space is a problem, especially for large groups such as the World of Concrete and the Radiological Society of North America.

"Yes, we are too small for a small, but significant, portion of our market," said Rogers. "For that reason, we need to face the question of whether the center is going to be expanded in order to remain competitive."

Karen DelVescovo, who managed the American Dietetic Association annual meeting in October, said the design of the building was "too complicated" and that she "always had trouble figuring out which escalator was going to take me to which lobby where." Design Draws Complaints

The concrete exhibitors also complained about the building's design. "There are logistical challenges with a two-story facility," Sladek said. "You have to put a restaurant or a live demonstration on one floor to lure people."

"The design is not ideal," said Carroll R. Armstrong, former national sales manager of the Washington Convention and Visitors Association and now director of sales and marketing for the New Orleans Convention Center.

"It creates the problem of second-class citizenship -- deciding which exhibitors go upstairs and which go downstairs," Armstrong said.

But convention center officials argue that many similar-size convention centers across the country put their exhibitors on two floors.

"It depends on the ingenuity of the exhibitors," Rogers said. "The way the National Capital Area International car show handled the problem was they put all the luxury cars on the lower floor and made that the main entrance in order to draw people through and then direct them to the domestic cars upstairs."

While the American Dietetic Association praised the management of the facility and Washington as an ideal convention location, the group complained about the building's public cocktail lounge.

"We didn't like the fact that there was a public cocktail lounge in the building we had leased," said DelVescovo. "We felt it was negative to the image of our group, plus it brought outside people not related to the show inside the building."

DelVescovo and others also complained about the food service. "We are still dealing with that problem," Rogers said. "We've had some good moments with the food, but that's an area which we admit we have to improve."

Although city officials point to area hotel growth as a selling point of the center, some conventioneers complain that they are housed too far away.

"The people at the convention bureau were very helpful to us, but the hotels were spread out pretty far," said Sladek of the World of Concrete. "We had people staying as far as the Sheraton Washington and the Shoreham. In Las Vegas, there were 2,000 rooms in the Las Vegas Hilton right next to the center."

The lack of hotel rooms near the convention center also presented a problem for the American Heart Association. "We used 64 different hotels in the District and Virginia, 17 different shuttle bus routes and 88 vans . . . " said Schein.

"We had kind of a dismal experience with the housing," said DelVescovo of the American Dietetic Association. "Our headquarters hotel was the Washington Hilton, a good 45 minutes away by bus in traffic. It was expensive to get shuttle buses, and it was logistically a nightmare for our members to be tied up in traffic."

Center managers argue that this problem will be alleviated when the 900-room Grand Hyatt and 800-room Ramada Renaissance are built near the center in about two years.

"This is clearly a problem that is being corrected, but the lack of hotels nearby hasn't been an impediment to getting business," said Rogers. "Washington is no different than other major cities in terms of hotels being dispersed throughout the city."

In addition, Demarest said the center has attracted many major conventions that had been too large to meet here before it was built, such as those held by the National Education Association and the American Heart Association.

In its first fiscal year of operation, the center lured five national trade shows. The second year, 20 national conventions and trade shows came, and this year, the convention hosted 26 major shows.

The center also attracts between 30 and 50 local-oriented public shows, such as the National Capital Area International Car Show, the Federal Systems Office Expo and the National Capital Boat Show. Projections Exceeded

"We're booking more than we thought we would, and we have an 80 percent repeat booking rate," said Alan Grip, assistant general manager at the convention center. "We're above everybody's projections."

Last year, approximately 269,000 out-of-town delegates to the convention center each stayed in Washington an average of 4.1 days, booking 706,624 hotel rooms nights and spending $125 million -- or about $460 apiece during a typical stay, according to the center.

In addition to boosting the economy through delegate spending, city officials estimate that the center generated about $10 million in tax revenue last fiscal year -- from the hotel retail tax, hotel occupancy tax, food and beverage tax, retail sales tax, income tax revenue from new hotel and convention center employes, admissions taxes from public consumer shows and tax revenue from the increase in land values near the center.

Center officials also point to a list of more than 40 hotels and other developments in the area that they tie directly to the center.

"I would be bold enough to suggest that even the new J. W. Marriott should be included in that list, along with the Willard Hotel which is undergoing renovation ," said Demarest. "None of those properties would be there, nor would they have moved forward, without the commitment made by the city to do this building and to do what's happened along Pennsylvania Avenue."

Some hotel executives and area developers disagree, however, about how much of the new development downtown can be linked to the center. A Marriott spokesman said "The convention center was not a catalyst for building the J. W. Marriott at National Place. The hotel is capable of hosting major conventions within the hotel, and that was the major factor involved in putting the hotel there."

A sign outside of the Washington Convention Center claims the facility created 5,000 jobs. But city officials and convention center executives could not precisely explain the basis for those claims. They said at least 3,000 jobs eventually will be created just from the area's new hotel business, and more are created in the spin-off jobs in the hospitality and restaurant industries.

"It is so obvious to those of us involved that the jobs are there that there wasn't any reason to become bookkeepers," said Kenny.

"You're never going to be able to go into a restaurant and say that those four waiters are there because we had 250,000 convention delegates," he added. "But what's going on in the restaurant industry here is enough to blow your mind." CAPTION: Pictures through 8, The Washington Convention Center, at New York Avenue an Ninth Street NW, contains 800,000 square feet of space and cost $100 million; George W. Demarest Jr., the convention center's general manager, rides escalator inside the facility; Billboard outside entrance to the convention center at New York Avenue and Ninth Street boasts of how building has been boon to city; Statistics displayed at center directors' meeting; Michael C. Rogers; AUstin G. Kenny; Kwasi Holman; Alan Grip. -- Washington Post photos