Capital IdeasApril 1, 2015

Input From Planners Is the Key to Successful Convention Center Improvement Projects By
April 1, 2015

Capital Ideas

Input From Planners Is the Key to Successful Convention Center Improvement Projects
Planner input helped designers create lobby networking areas such as these sit steps at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.

Planner input helped designers create lobby networking areas such as these sit steps at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.

Convention center improvement projects are often major investments that have the potential to boost group business along with the local economy. The best way to realize that potential is to ensure the improvements meet the needs of a center’s biggest clients or those the city is trying to attract.

Soliciting feedback on renovations and expansions from the planners representing these groups is thus a best practice for many convention centers, including the Orlando Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), whose ongoing $187 million Capital Improvement Plan benefited from Customer Advisory Board input. The nation’s second largest convention center behind Chicago’s McCormick Place, the OCCC hosted the National Association of Homebuilders’ (NAHB) International Builders’ Show in 2012 and will welcome back the show in 2017 and 2018, along with the co-located Kitchen and Bath Industry Show and International Window Coverings Expo.

The event is expected to attract more than 80,000 attendees, certainly qualifying the NAHB as a major client and Geoff Cassidy, senior vice president of exhibitions and meetings for the DC-based NAHB, as a valued member of the Customer Advisory Board for both Visit Orlando and the OCCC.

“They (Visit Orlando and the OCCC) have been really outstanding in terms of engaging their customers with the thoughts and plans they have for the future, very inclusive in that process.” — Geoff Cassidy

“They’ve been really outstanding in terms of engaging their customers with the thoughts and plans they have for the future, very inclusive in that process,” Cassidy comments.

The Capital Improvement Plan has been focused mainly on the West Building, where several projects will be completed by August: the addition of the new Hamlin boardrooms, the refurbished W340 Sunburst signature meeting room with adjoining Sunburst outdoor hospitality terrace, and the transformation of West Hall F into the repurposed, multifunctional 50,000-sf Tangerine Ballroom.

“My understanding is that Hall F, to be a multipurpose ballroom, can still be utilized for exhibit space, and we may very well go ahead and use it that way,” says Cassidy. “We’ve done a variety of things down at that end of the West Building, including exhibits and what we call the Finance Forum. There were certain limits associated with using that space as it had been. It was off at the end of the action, like an afterthought.”

Early this year the OCCC reopened the renovated Gary Sain Café and completed the installation of 60 digital message and wayfinding signs, among other upgrades. The facility partners with Smart City Networks (see page 22) for its digital signage networks, as does the Las Vegas Convention Center, where the International Builders’ Show is being held this year and the following.

“We’ve begun to engage in a really meaningful way with the (digital signage) system in Las Vegas, and we intend and expect to do the same in Orlando,” Cassidy adds.

The Las Vegas Convention Center is moving ahead with its own improvement project, a $2.3 billion expansion and renovation.

The first phase will focus on the recently acquired, 26-acre site of the Riviera Hotel & Casino and will include 750,000 sf of new exhibit space and 187,500 sf of supporting meeting space as part of the new 1.8-million-sf expansion.

Phase two will renovate the existing convention center, adding a 100,000-sf general session space and another 100,000 sf of meeting space.

Overall, the LVCC’s current total footprint of 3.2 million sf will increase to nearly 5.7 million sf. The entire project is expected to take five to eight years to complete after construction begins, and will be part of the new Las Vegas Global Business District that also will feature a centralized transportation hub.

Such a major expansion would “open up all kinds of opportunities for us,” says Kay Granath, CAE, CMP, director of meetings and conventions for the Chicago, Illinois-based Association Management Center, which currently partners with 18 clients on their annual meetings.

The last meeting the AMC managed at the LVCC was the Awards and Recognition Association’s trade show in 2012. “It’s an old convention center and the technology was dated. We have been big advocates of the new space because that would give a place for a smaller show as well as a big show,” Granath says.

The ARA’s International Awards Market brings in about 3,000–5,000 attendees and is currently at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino where “it’s working fine, but the show is growing and the concern is always that we will outgrow the hotel,” Granath comments.

Access to variously sized convention facilities always benefits groups vying for space in a competitive market. Granath notes that her Boston-bound groups were always competing against larger groups for the John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center until the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center (BCEC) opened in 2004 and the larger groups began using that facility. Last summer, plans were approved to move forward with a 1.3-million-sf expansion of the BCEC that includes a second, larger ballroom and new public space in the South Boston Waterfront.

Expansions in Second-Tier Cities

In the Midwest, planners will find a convention center expansion project in one of the country’s great second-tier cities: Columbus, Ohio. The Greater Columbus Convention Center’s (GCCC) $125 million expansion and full renovation will begin around September 2015 and conclude in July 2017. Groups will be able to utilize an additional 36,000 sf of exhibit space and more than 10,000 sf of two-level meeting space. Other features include the new 800-space Goodale Garage scheduled to open in October; upgrades to meeting rooms, ballrooms and public spaces at the GCCC and at the connected Hyatt Regency Columbus; new connectivity stations and public art and foliage; an executive boardroom; nursing mother’s room; second-level exhibit hall VIP show offices and concierge spaces; and reimagined Food Court & Shops.

Another second-tier convention center on the move is the Albuquerque Convention Center (ACC). Last October the center completed phase two of its $22 million renovation with a new 5,600-sf addition consisting of a new large entrance vestibule, small retail space and outdoor deck. The center also added new floor, wall and ceiling finishes, new LED lighting and a gas fireplace in the atrium area. In addition, Third Street between Tijeras and Marquette was reconstructed.

The National Association of Health Underwriters, which typically meets in hotels, will hold its 2016 Annual Convention at the ACC in 2016, bringing in 800–1,000 attendees. The renovation and expansion “was one of the things that influenced the decision,” remarks Kathleen Cochran, CAE, CMP, vice president of meetings with the DC-based association. “I’m sure that if I had seen it and it had not been renovated, it may not have jumped to the forefront.”

Cochran highlights numerous features of the new and improved ACC that will benefit the convention. “The floor plan of the renovated center is very open, airy and spacious, and there’s very good flow between the (2,300-seat) Kiva Auditorium and the exhibit hall and the areas that are on the lower level. We’ll be using the auditorium for our general session. Also, the very lowest level, which is where the breakout space is, has really wonderful networking space, anchored by a big, beautiful Southwestern-style fireplace. There is plenty of lounge seating, workstations and tables for six to eight people so you can have a small meeting.”

West Coast Projects

Several convention center projects can be found in California, two of the latest in Los Angeles and Anaheim, respectively. The Los Angeles Convention Center’s $10 million renovation is set to be completed May 1 and includes a new solar-ready “cool roof” on the South Hall and Concourse Hall; new carpet throughout the Concourse Hall, Concourse Walkway and hall lobby areas; overhauled parking systems; a remodeling of the 299-seat Theater; upgraded air walls, IT infrastructure and lighting systems; an elevator and escalator modernization; and more.

Between October and early 2017, the Anaheim Convention Center will be adding 200,000 sf of flexible meeting space on two levels, with 100,000 sf of column-free space on the top level. The addition will be complemented by dedicated loading docks, 1,400 parking spots, and a climate-controlled pedestrian bridge connecting to the second floor of the existing facility.

In the Northwest, planners can now take advantage of a more expansive Spokane Convention Center with 91,000 additional sf. The $55 million project resulted in a 120,000-sf exhibit hall, an additional ballroom and new meeting space for a total of 32 meeting rooms. And, attendees can enjoy new floor-to-ceiling windows affording panoramic views of the Spokane River.

“We were the first major group to use the expansion, and it was beautifully done,” remarks Bruce Caldwell, executive director with the Washington Music Educators Association. Caldwell manages the National Association for Music Education’s (NAfME) Biennial Northwest Division Conference, which was held at the Spokane Convention Center in 2009 and again this year, bringing in around 1,800 attendees plus exhibitors.

“I was not anxious to go back to Spokane because the first time through it was difficult,” Caldwell recalls. “But this time it was absolutely spectacular. Before there weren’t enough meeting spaces; we actually had to use the Davenport Hotel, which is a 10-minute bus ride away, because they didn’t have enough meeting space (at the convention center). This time we got everything under one roof, using the attached DoubleTree as our headquarters hotel.” The service the second time around for the NAfME group also was exceptional. “I’ve had 23 conventions of this type, and I’ve never seen a staff work so hard to please people,” Caldwell says. “When you walked down the hall every 50 or 60 feet there would be a staff person asking if you needed help. They even knew our schedule and kept up with it every hour. Even without being solicited, attendees, as well as office staff and board members, said how wonderful the staff was.”

The NAfME had contracted the Spokane Convention Center six years ago, knowing that it would be expanded. “Our biggest concern was that we actually did not see the ballroom and did not have any idea it would be as good acoustically as the ballroom at the Davenport we had been using, until one month before when we did a site visit,” Caldwell explains. “We put on hard hats because they were still building, walked through it and felt more comfortable that it would work.”

The San Jose McEnery Convention Center expansion was completed in 2013. The public artwork of Idea Tree provides an iconic, artistic, interactive and technology-driven element to the main convention center entrance. Additional features include: revamped lobby with sit steps where convention attendees can plug in and network between sessions; new networking lounge; more breakout rooms; additional flexible meeting spaces; event spaces with beautiful bright California colors including reclaimed redwood ceilings; modern high-tech feel — with the state-of-the-art Silicon Valley infrastructure to back it up; and a new open plaza entrance facing Downtown San Jose, perfect for networking and outdoor event hosting.

“In a smaller center it looks like it’s really crowded and there’s a buzz. That has a huge impact on the perception that people have of the meeting they went to.” — Kay Granath

Today the center provides more than 425,000 sf of space for conventions and events. Its flexible configuration offers 143,000 sf of divisible, column-free prime exhibit space, a large ballroom, up to 30 meeting rooms with up to 2,400 theater-style seats and banquet facilities for up to 5,000 persons. In addition, the center has 30-foot-high finished ceilings, 12 loading bays with drive-on access to the exhibit hall floors, recessed utility boxes with electricity, water and drainage capabilities, complete audio-visual, sound and lighting services, cellular, standard and ISDN telephony services, and fiber-optic and copper cabling throughout the facility with DS-3 high-speed Internet access.

Final Thoughts

Planners who book a convention center that is set to be renovated/expanded by the meeting dates are sometimes concerned that the project may not be finished on time. But a contract clause can be implemented that provides the group the option of penalty-free cancellation in case the project is not finished. In addition, “incremental dates” can be established, says Granath. “Let’s put some milestones in to see how the project is going, and if it’s not happening, then we can consider what to do. But today everybody is more cognizant of making deadlines, as well as not booking events too close in (to projected completion dates). In the building boom in the ’80s, they weren’t so much.”

While the recent boom in convention center expansions creates more opportunities for groups, it remains important to book a facility or function space that is the right size for the attendance numbers: not too big or small. “For some of our groups, a small center is really perfect,” Granath notes. “For example, in Boston we use the Hynes Convention Center because it’s a perfect size for us. The BCEC is beautiful, but it’s huge. When you have a crowd of people standing in this huge convention center, it looks like you don’t have as many; in a smaller center it looks like it’s really crowded and there’s a buzz. That has a huge impact on the perception that people have of the meeting they went to.”  AC&F

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