Convention center expansions regularly make the meeting industry headlines, and examples of these projects can be found nationwide, from the Moscone Center in San Francisco to the Jacob J. Javits Convention Center in New York City to the Miami Beach and Orange County centers in Florida. Expansions often create opportunities for association groups, and are generally good news. But there is more to the future of these facilities than leaps in square footage. Layout, architectural motifs, technology, amenities, transportation infrastructure and many other aspects must be attuned to the needs and desires of convention center clients. Ultimately, they are the ones who drive the trends in convention center design.
“We try to create a civic presence and bring in hints of authentic local culture; we try to blend what the city is and what the city wants to be.”
— Michael Lockwood
It’s best when these trends are incorporated holistically, in what Michael Lockwood, architect and senior principal at Kansas City, Missouri-based architecture and design firm Populous, calls “trend fusion.” “We believe that if you solve for any one trend you probably are not going to end up with a building that’s addressing the future, so you need to fuse those trends together and come up with a bigger idea that starts to address as many trends as possible,” he explains. Populous, whose current projects include the Los Angeles and Orange County convention center expansions, has regularly sought input from meeting planners in order to help determine which ideas to “fuse.” For 15 years, the company has annually hosted its Imagine That Workshop in Kansas City “where we invite people to talk about the future of the convention center business,” says Lockwood. “The guest roster has changed over the years. At first it was mostly (building) operators and over the last few years we blended them with CVBs and planners.”
If there is one buzzword that can be culled from planners’ numerous suggestions at such workshops as well as through customer advisory boards, it’s flexibility. “I’ve served on two advisory boards which suggested improvements to convention center renovations/expansions. In both cases, the boards recommended flexible meeting/exhibit space — that is, space that could be used for exhibits at one event but be converted to meeting space for another,” notes Randy Bauler, CEM, corporate relations and exhibits director, American Association of Critical-Care Nurses. According to Debra Rosencrance, CMP, CAE, vice president of meetings and exhibits, American Academy of Ophthalmology, “The issue is that we just don’t know what the future will bring, so the space should not be designated as anything so that it can used for everything. Planners are looking for empty shells that can be utilized however their meeting needs.” Toward this goal, Rosencrance suggests “having doors to halls and ballrooms be on sliders (like a barn door) so that the whole wall of doors could be open to allow for a real flow.” Planners are also urging the development of more breakout options, and Populous is responding to this request as well. In particular, “medical and technology conferences need a lot more breakout spaces,” Lockwood observes. “The trend toward smaller and smaller meeting rooms is better for the industry and for the buildings because they can actually be a little more nimble.”
Part of keeping the spaces flexible is avoiding permanent installations that limit the utility of the space, including the public areas that a client may want to use. “We become concerned every time a convention center, and in our case it’s basically the Las Vegas and Orange County convention centers, puts permanent things in their public space,” says Geoffrey D. Cassidy, senior vice president, exhibitions and meetings group, National Association of Home Builders, who is on the customer advisory board for the Orange County Convention Center. “Because at times, depending on the economy and the size of our show, we could be a full facility event, and that includes public space. Even if you’re only using a portion of one of the buildings, to have flexibility with respect to the public space even within that smaller portion of the building is beneficial.”
Permanent installations in public space can include kiosks, fixed furniture groupings or registration counters. The latter “doesn’t work because some of us like to put in our own registration counters where we want with flexibility to brand them how we want, and to be able to move them out in the first or second day of the show to create other networking areas,” explains Karen Malone, vice president meetings and sales, HIMSS. “So I look for the opportunity to continually reimagine the space throughout the week.”
The ability to create networking areas in public space may be especially important for associations that cannot accommodate such areas on the exhibit floor. “We’re trying to sell as much square footage as we can sell in the exhibit hall, and so sometimes we are unwilling to allocate space to lounge areas,” Cassidy remarks. “They are trendy, but also (cost the opportunity) for a full facility event. So that’s why we need flexibility in public space because we may need seating in a different area than the building wants to place it.”
Assuming that public space installations are movable, they can certainly be a plus to the attendee experience. “One of the things Orlando has done that’s really important is they’ve created nice networking pods throughout the convention center,” Malone observes. “And networking is the No. 1 reason why people go to conferences, studies are starting to show. So I think it’s really important to create areas where networking can be enhanced.” As a designer, Lockwood shows sensitivity to this trend. “Giving guests an opportunity to interact outside of the meeting rooms I think is becoming a priority because people now operate on their own terms, finding the attendees they want to connect with using their own devices,” he explains. “And that happens out in the lobby or prefunction space.”
Networking hubs also serve an overall goal of many convention center projects: to create a more cosmopolitan environment for delegates. “In a lot of these buildings you could easily walk in the exhibition hall or concourse (the equivalent of) three or four city blocks,” notes Lockwood, “and it’s funny how somehow it’s been OK inside a convention center but outside in the city you would never really ask somebody to walk three or four blocks with nothing to do. That’s just not a great urban experience. So we’re trying to move inside of the building all the qualities that exist outside in a good city.” Those qualities can include panoramic city views, gathering spaces and F&B outlets, although care must be taken not to make public space features too entertainment-oriented or otherwise distracting from the convention itself. That’s something that event organizers themselves try not to do.
“Our show is only three days, and it’s a lot that’s compressed into those three days,” says Cassidy. “Show floor hours are only 9–5, and so to create some sort of alternative attraction that might pull people away from the exhibit floor or the meeting rooms where we have education going on is something we would look at carefully.”
Hotels typically offer groups several ways to get a breath of fresh air, including patios, gardens, al fresco dining, pool areas and rooftop venues. Both Rosencrance and Malone note that this kind of opportunity is also desirable at convention centers, which fortunately have been accommodating. “All of our buildings right now have some aspect of outdoor space, whether a covered balcony, a plaza or a courtyard,” Lockwood says. “So attendees can meet on their own terms, they can feel plugged into the city that they’re in, and they can feel part of the urban environment.” Vertically stacked convention centers in particular offer the designer many opportunities to create terraces and balconies. However, planning an outdoor function can be challenging, he adds. “It’s difficult to plan for an outdoor event three to five years in advance because of the unpredictability of the weather. We’re trying to mitigate that by designing outdoor spaces that have covers and heaters. The spaces also have easy access to the indoors so planners feel comfortable integrating those spaces into their meetings.”
The option of outdoor exhibit space is also advantageous for some convention groups, such as the National Association of Home Builders, which had more than 30,000 sf of outdoor exhibits at this year’s International Builders’ Show in Orlando. The ideal situation, which can be difficult to realize at metropolitan convention centers, would be “open areas with movable landscaping, big pods that can be moved out of the way so you can put exhibits into them when you wanted to, and when you didn’t, you could have a lush area with seating outside,” Cassidy describes.
A popular feature in this area, for both aesthetic and energy conservation reasons, is the use of natural light. “We enjoy centers which offer natural lighting, and higher ceilings with a feeling of openness,” Bauler says. But even natural light is not ideal in all scenarios. “If you want to put a registration setup in a lobby that is just drenched with natural light, you’re going to have issues with respect to your computer monitors,” Cassidy says. “So if you have some sort of window covering or the ability to dim the glass itself, that kind of flexibility is of interest.”
In general, the visual aesthetics of centers are becoming more appealing with color schemes that express the destination as well as the work of local artists and other cultural décor. But planners advise that some thought be put into these common aesthetic choices. “As far as color schemes, I think it’s nice when they use colors that don’t pigeonhole us too much, and either use neutral colors or a lot of colors where we can pull a color out that’s within our branding palette,” Malone says. And regarding art installations, the interest can quickly be lost for attendees who have been to the center numerous times. “Oftentimes, they end up getting dusty and can often look dated,” says Rosencrance. “Maybe rotating art (photos, paintings) from local artists would be appealing, as that would never get stale.”
It is indeed challenging to express the spirit of a city in the design elements of a convention center without appearing “too contrived or obvious,” says Lockwood. “Cities are made up of a lot of different things, and I think our buildings should feel that way as well. If you think that one homogenous solution could identify what a city is all about you’d be mistaken as a designer. So we try to create a civic presence and bring in hints of authentic local culture; we try to blend what the city is and what the city wants to be. A great example is our project in San Antonio (the expanded Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center) that just opened. City leaders saw the building as an opportunity to look toward the future.”
Plentiful charging hubs, digital signage, easy-to-use wayfinding and facility-wide Wi-Fi are typically on planners’ high-tech checklists. “Many shows now bring in these mobile charge units, and I think convention centers need to get on the ball and start putting those in many places throughout,” says Malone. “Instead of every show bringing them in, it makes more sense that the center provides them. It’s like having Wi-Fi Internet access now.” Rosencrance adds that the hubs “should not be built in such a way that they limit how lobbies are utilized. Ideally, it would be cool if buildings had charging stations that were mobile that could be placed where needed like the old mobile phone banks.”
“People need power,” Lockwood stresses, “and they want to be comfortable while using it. In San Antonio, we located USB power outlets everywhere in the building, every aspect of the seating has a place to plug in.”
Both Malone and Sean Lenahan, A.V.P., convention operations for the National Association of Home Builders, say they appreciate the quality of the digital signage in the Orange County Convention Center. Lenahan notes that “It would be nice if some of that signage were to extend into the actual meeting rooms.”
The “meeting room of the future” may well have a good amount of digital signage, as a Populous project at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center suggests. “We took one of the meeting rooms and integrated the latest and most interesting technology as far as the meeting room experience goes,” says Lockwood. “There’s one wall that has a tiled array of touchscreen monitors where the presenter can get up and literally interact with the content. There are two other projection walls and a system in the room where guests with devices can share their content as well. I think what we’re looking at in the future is less of one person presenting and everybody listening, and more collaborative sessions. That’s what this room tries to address. It’s one of the marquee architectural features of the building: it’s a meeting room that cantilevers out over the street with city views. We’re excited to see where that room can go.”
Planners are looking for an organized layout to the transportation options outside a convention center. “Centers are getting better at laying out traffic flow, but now with Uber it’s really important that they have allocated spaces where Uber vs. traditional shuttles can pick up attendees,” Malone says. Hubs organized by type of transportation, or a centralized hub for all types, would also be helpful, Lenahan notes. “From a transportation standpoint things tend to get spread out in both the Las Vegas and Orange County convention centers, and I think a more centralized cab station/train station kind of scenario would serve those centers well, so you’re not spread out with a cab stop in one spot and a bus stop half way down the road.”
From bike rentals to outdoor group yoga sessions, fitness regimens are being accommodated in today’s convention center experience. Populous is even considering incorporating exercise rooms into some of its designs. But with the amount of walking and, in particular, stair-climbing attendees can do at a convention, a basic workout is readily available. Personal technology such as Fitbit is facilitating this option, Lockwood feels. “Imagine in the past when you attended a conference or trade show for two days and at the end of the day you were exhausted. Now with wearable technology people are actually looking for that experience where at the end of the day they can look at Fitbit or their iPhone and say, ‘Oh my gosh I just walked nine miles today, great,’ ” he says. The technology will encourage many attendees to take the stairs in lieu of the escalator or elevator, he expects. “One of the things we came up with at PCMA (January 2015 session with planners) was a “Wellnesswell” (wellness stairwell). Especially in stacked buildings we have a lot of stairs, and typically they’re fire stairs, so we try to place them strategically throughout the building. They are not elements that are typically celebrated, whereas if it’s something people are desiring (for fitness reasons) you could see a lot more staircases celebrated in the building. They might become an opportunity for branding or advertising. ‘Every flight of stairs you climb you burn 25 calories.’ ”
Convention centers themselves are becoming more fit to host groups with tailored offerings that go far beyond additional space. Planner feedback on the projects has been and will continue to be key to ensuring that expanded centers are not just new, but also improved in exactly the ways that matter to clients. AC&F