Is state-of-the-art enough? Fabulous new convention centers are being built across the country. But if they build it, will religious meetings come? not necessarily

Is state-of-the-art enough? Fabulous new convention centers are being built across the country. But if they build it, will religious meetings come? not necessarily

Larry Keltto

The competition between cities for meetings never has been greater, and the proof can be seen in the architecturally pleasing, technology-laden convention centers being built coast to coast.

Civic leaders, motivated by a desire to get their share of the meetings business, have recognized that a gleaming new convention center is the heart of any city’s effort to catch the attention of religious meeting planners and their brethren in other organizations. But when seemingly every city in America is upgrading its convention center, is a new one enough?

Desperately Seeking a Center

Sales representatives at the Buffalo/Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau have a tough job. It’s their task to compete for meetings business without a modern, state-of-the-art convention center, While cities of similar size brag about new facilities, Buffalo tries to book meetings with an outdated, 25-year-old structure, and with new and renovated convention centers going up across the country, the job just gets more difficult.

“It’s getting more competitive every day,” says Mary Summers, director of communications for the Buffalo/Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau. “When a CVB has to put two or three things together to match another city’s convention center, it’s difficult to compete.”

Several studies have outlined the need for a new convention center in Buffalo, and officials, including Summers, are hopeful that a proposed convention center project will be completed by 2005-2006. Funding would come from county, state, and perhaps even federal sources.

“The building needs to be in place to be able to grow convention business,” says Summers, who points to Milwaukee, Wis., as an example of what can happen to a city’s convention business when it has a new facility. “Milwaukee is comparable in climate, population size, and economic background to Buffalo. The increase in business and the spin-off development there has been remarkable.”

Obviously, having a convention center that meets the minimum space and service requirements of meeting planners is important, but perhaps just as important is the statement it makes about a city’s commitment to the meetings industry.

“A new, state-of-the-art convention center that incorporates a pleasing architectural design says that we re really trying to service you [the convention attendee],” Summers says. “Having a convention center says that we know what you need and that we can supply what you need in other areas.”

Not a Panacea

Dawn Poker, senior vice president of the Greater Milwaukee CVB, is proud and excited about her city’s new convention center, the Midwest Express Center, which hosted the 2001 RCMA Annual Conference and Exposition. But Poker cautions communities that believe a building alone will attract religious meeting planners and their counterparts representing other types of meetings. No, the market is much more competitive than that.

Poker says you need everything to be a meetings heavyweight, and by “everything” she means a downtown and a city that can provide a kaleidoscope of shopping, dining, entertainment, educational, and cultural options for attendees.

“It’s a night-and-day difference,” Poker says of Milwaukee’s new ability to compete. “But I would caution cities that the building is not a panacea for solving all your problems. Cities lose sight of that, and the expectations placed on CVBs are unrealistic if those other pieces are not in place.”

Even if you have all the pieces in place, your work isn’t done. “You’d better well have the marketing dollars to tell people about it,” Poker says.

Fortunately for Milwaukee, its leadership knew the importance of marketing. Money was set aside, for example, to open sales offices in Washington, D.C., and Chicago. “You need to support the local CVB to get the message out,” she says. “The worst thing about the movie Field of Dreams was the saying ‘Build it and they will come.’ That’s simply not true in the convention center business.”

While Poker knows a convention center won’t make a city competitive overnight, she acknowledges it was a critical starting point. Without the Midwest Express Center, the city couldn’t compete.

“We’ve gone from being a low minor-league team to the major leagues,” says Poker. “We used to have regional business; now we have national business.”

In 1995, prior to the convention center, the number of room nights that Milwaukee had tied directly to meetings was 136,000. That number reached 263,000 in 2000. While the meetings business nationwide has been slow, Milwaukee enjoyed its best April ever.

The story hasn’t always been rosy in Milwaukee. Since the 1920s, the Milwaukee press has documented how the community was losing conventions for lack of a convention center, Poker says. A convention center built in the 1970s didn’t help much (see sidebar on page 48), and when cities around the country began to go after meetings business in the 1980s, Milwaukee did nothing and lost market share.

A group of community leaders recognized what meetings could do for the city. They quietly pursued a convention center at the state legislature and gained taxing authority for it in 1994. Ground was broken in February 1996; Phase I was completed in July 1998; Phase II was ready in 1999.

A City That Doesn’t Rest

If you talk to convention and visitors bureau professionals about their competition, Indianapolis almost always gets mentioned. In fact, Indianapolis seems to have become the model for what can happen when a city is intentional about making itself a meetings destination.

The Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association reports that the convention from 79,702 room nights in 1984–the year the first expansion of the Indiana Convention Center was completed and the RCA Dome was built–to 477,180 definite nights in 2001. From 1984 to 2000, the city experienced an increase of delegates from 147,150 to 822,914.

At the core of that success is the Indiana Convention Center & RCA Dome, a facility that has been renovated, expanded, and improved continuously since it opened in 1972. When the Phase IV expansion was complete in 2000, the downtown facility stood at more than 400,000 square feet of exhibit space and 139,925 square feet of meeting rooms.

Why would a city with a thriving meetings business need an expanded convention center? Competition. Indianapolis saw what was happening across the country and took a proactive step to protect its hard-earned lead.

“We listen to our customers, and they were telling us that they needed additional space,” says Linda Addaman, director of sales and marketing for the Indiana Convention Center. “They love Indianapolis and want to stay, but they were stretched to capacity.” No expansions are planned, but you can assume Indianapolis isn’t going to rest.

“To remain competitive, the Indiana Convention Center & RCA Dome will continue to upgrade its product and offer the latest features and technological advances,” Addaman says.

Indy’s city leaders apparently recognize that the competition never has been tougher. Indy’s leaders also probably know that the city has a big target on its collective chest: Cities across the country are trying to duplicate its success.

While other cities race to catch up, Indianapolis seems to keep getting better. The past 10 years have included a long list of new downtown attractions and development. The latest is the new downtown Marriott, a full-service, upscale hotel with 615 rooms. Indianapolis now has 5,289 rooms downtown. Downtown Houston would love to have that many rooms.

Not Enough Rooms

The need for convention center space and downtown hotel rooms often are intertwined, as was the case in Houston.

Houston officials have faced a unique challenge in recent years: They have a wonderful facility in the George R. Brown Convention Center, but not enough downtown hotel rooms. At the beginning of the year, Houston had 46,000 rooms citywide but only 1,800 rooms downtown.

“Big shows have bypassed us because we did not have enough rooms downtown,” says Barbara Mendel, director of public relations with the Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau. The city encouraged a private-sector solution, but “we couldn’t get it done,” she says. City officials decided to build the hotel, and in the process they identified the need for an expanded convention center.

This July, groundbreaking took place on a 1,200-room hotel that will bear the Hilton name and on a convention center expansion that will double the existing center’s size by adding 500,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space. The new facilities will include a 6,600-seat arena for “religious presentations, corporate meetings, and sporting events,” according to the Houston CVB.

“These were high-priority projects” for Houston, Mendel says.

So, just like that, in one big project, Houston suddenly is a major national competitor, and the task for people such as Mary Summers in Buffalo got a little tougher.

RELATED ARTICLE: Not Your Father’s Convention Center

Convention-center architecture and baseball-stadium architecture in America are evolving along similar lines. In the 1970s, the typical new baseball facility was a multi-use, utilitarian structure with no distinguishing characteristics. The joke was that it was impossible to tell the difference among the stadiums in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. Not so today. The new, retro-style parks being built are filled with charming architectural flourishes that try to capture a city’s physical identity and history.

Like the baseball stadiums of the 1970s, the typical convention center in the 1970s was impersonal, a “big, white box with columns every 5 feet,” jokes Dawn Poker, senior vice president of the Greater Milwaukee CVB. Like the baseball stadiums, the convention centers all looked the same. Again, not so today.

Consider, for example, two Wisconsin facilities. On the shore of Lake Monona in downtown Madison, the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center (pictured above and below) is a breathtaking building that could have been designed only by Frank Lloyd Wright, the 20th century’s most celebrated architect. Remarkably, Monona Terrace was built from plans that Wright (who died in 1959) unveiled in 1938. Six decades later, in 1997, his vision was realized when Monona Terrace opened.

The Midwest Express Center in Milwaukee took its design cues from neighboring downtown buildings, and the center’s interior is filled with $1.2 million in public art, all of which has a connection to Wisconsin.

The new architectural sensibility in convention centers results in structures that do what all great art does: evoke an emotional, memorable response.

“What you get when you enter is not a convention-center experience, but an art-museum experience or an experience from a five-star hotel,” Poker says. The art and architecture were “beyond anyone’s expectations of how much it would add to the facility.”

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