'If you build it, they will come': Why convention center projects pay off
Securing a prime location used to be all convention center organizers needed to generate a steady stream of visitors. Today’s trade associations, professional organizations and any other group that has regular membership gatherings, however, are looking for more than just a meeting place, and convention centers around the country are pulling out all the stops in an effort to convince them that their venue is the best choice.
Drawing in lucrative convention business
To that end, the last few years have seen major renovation projects from coast to coast, the most recent of which just kicked off at New York City’s Jacob K. Javits Center. The Javits Center is the premier convention spot in the city, but being smack dab in the middle of "the city that never sleeps" wasn’t enough to maximize its convention and meeting potential.
A $1.5 billion expansion will up the facility’s game by adding 50% more space, including the city’s largest ballroom, a 500,000-square-foot exhibition hall, a pavilion, a green roof with a terrace and a revamped loading area with 27 additional loading docks.
Aside from the potential to create thousands of jobs during construction, the city stands to benefit to the tune of almost $400 million a year from the expected increase in convention business. And, according to Dan Mehls, vice president and general manager of Mortenson Construction’s Portland, OR, office, that financial gain is one of the primary drivers of convention center remodels.
"Cities are competing with each other all the time for big conventions," Mehls said. They can create a major boost to the economy when the money spent on dining, airline travel and retail outings is factored in. "There is an incredible amount of money that flows through these convention centers," he said.
Where hotels come into play
According to Oregon officials, a survey of national meeting planners revealed that 79% were more likely to book conventions at the Oregon Convention Center if there was an "amenity-rich" hotel like the Hyatt Regency next door. "That’s what really makes a convention center profitable," Mehls said.
David Anderson, regional vice president of Spectra by Comcast Spectacor, a management company that boasts hundreds of convention centers, arenas and sports facilities among the properties in its portfolio, agreed.
Anderson manages the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, FL, and said he saw a surge in business after the 400-room Hilton, which is connected to the PBCCC, opened its doors. Well, actually, before that. "As soon as construction began, we saw a huge spike in business," he said.
Anderson said meeting planners had consistently told him that they would have booked shows at the PBCCC, but the lack of an adjacent hotel kept them from doing so.
The Hilton opened in January 2016, and, as a result, Anderson said the convention center enjoyed record business last year and is on track to see even more business this year and in 2018. "This is a great example of 'If you build it, they will come,'" he said.
Keeping the tech top-notch
There are other features important to today’s convention centers as well, and technological upgrades rate close to the top.
"We as operators try to make sure the place is wired so that clients can come in and do what they do," Anderson said.
The $615 million renovation underway at another of Spectra’s properties, the Miami Beach Convention Center, will be able to accommodate the new type of convention — smartphone- and other Wi-Fi device-enabled. Clark Construction is heading up that renovation, and the venue is scheduled for completion in December of next year, just in time to host the 75,000 visitors expected at next year’s Art Basel event.
In a space like the PBCC, Anderson said, there are typically 1,000 to 2,000 attendees at one time, versus 10,000 to 15,000 at the MBCC, all wanting to get online with a speedy connection and enough bandwidth to perform all the standard convention-center activities like presentations with live, streaming video.
"It’s important to stay ahead of technology trends as conventions come in," he said.
Anderson's definition of wiring also includes the power and ceiling height that will allow the rigging and lighting necessary for big entertainment events. While convention business is great, Anderson said, it’s an advantage to be able to book the odd circus, ice show or concert as a way of boosting revenue on the days when there’s no convention scheduled.
Designing for flexibility
Flexibility and simplicity are other elements that permeate the design of modern convention centers.
"I would say a good convention center design has a significant amount of contiguous square footage on one floor," Mehls said. This space should be able to be subdivided into a variety of different-sized meeting areas, all of which should be easy for convention-goers to find.
"When you walk into convention centers, some are broken-up spaces and hard to navigate," he said. "It’s a great benefit if visitors can walk in and have an immediate understanding of how to make their way from one space to another."
At the MBCC, Anderson said, the new design has plenty of flexible and indoor-outdoor space, all ready to be converted into custom meeting areas. "The client can create what they want," he said. "Planners are looking for not just space but flexible space."
Additional renovation considerations
Part of that flexibility also applies to food and beverage service. Anderson said the PBCC is equipped with plenty of food and beverage capabilities, but some centers have traditional kitchen areas that limit the staff’s ability to provide convention-goers with on-the-spot service throughout the venue.
"The days of concession stands are a thing of the past," Anderson said. "New concessions are grab-and-go and pop-up stands" that can be positioned through the exhibit halls.
Gallery provides that portable food-service equipment in the form of carts and kiosks, and Dan Gallery IV, president of the family-owned company, said their products are in 5,000 different locations around the country, including the new Minnesota Vikings’ U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
The cart systems have become popular because when it comes time for a renovation, like at one of Gallery's recent projects at the Austin (Texas) Convention Center, existing carts can be refreshed to present a new look to customers. If the convention center or other venue wants to completely remodel a food or bar area and needs new equipment, it’s often just a matter of rolling out the old and rolling in the new, sparing the expense of demolition and reconstruction.
Anderson said the outdoor space at the PBCCC also allows for food trucks to park at the edge of a courtyard outside the center, which gives attendees the opportunity to sample a variety of local food options and eat outside.
Transportation is also important to a convention center’s ability to book shows and meetings, but Anderson and Mehls said services like Uber have helped to close any gaps in public transportation.
The MBCC might also benefit from ideas being tossed around regarding a light rail system in Miami Beach, and the new convention center is being designed to accommodate massive bus traffic. West Palm Beach also has a trolley system.
So what is the biggest payoff from the multimillion-dollar renovations? "What I’m most excited about," Anderson said, "is [visitors] will fill hotels, use local attractions and spend money in local business. That type of impact is massive, and the amount of money spent [on renovations] pales in comparison to that benefit."
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