Convention Cities on the MoveOctober 1, 2016

Where Expanding Convention Districts and Meetings Infrastructure Are Getting Planners’ Attention By
October 1, 2016

Convention Cities on the Move

Where Expanding Convention Districts and Meetings Infrastructure Are Getting Planners’ Attention
The George R. Brown Convention Center, overlooking Discovery Green, is connected to the new Marriott Marquis (left) and Hilton Americas-Houston.

The George R. Brown Convention Center, overlooking Discovery Green, is connected to the new Marriott Marquis (left) and Hilton Americas-Houston.

While there’s something to be said for sticking with the predictability of an established convention city, it can be exciting to give a hot new destination a chance. With that thought in mind, we looked around the country for the most exciting up-and-coming convention cities in the country.

Some of the cities that made our list have completed major convention center upgrades or made major gains in hotel inventory. A few are garnering headlines after landing major sporting or political events. But all of these communities have one important thing in common: They’re about to become major movers and shakers in the convention scene.


Nashville has long been known as Music City, and they’re looking to add a second title: the Silicon Valley of health care. Both aspects made Nashville an ideal place for America’s Health Insurance Plans’ (AHIP) 2015 Institute and Expo.

Lisa Shreve, MPP, senior vice president of professional education and public affairs, says she and her colleagues had an opportunity to tour the new Music City Center (MCC) before it even opened. They were very impressed by the convention center’s sustainability features, natural light, effective flow and helpful staff. “We had a lot of confidence in their ability to help us execute a great event,” she reports.


As the convention approached, Shreve did encounter one serious snag at the MCC. Two months prior to the event, she found out her plans for theming and branding the event could no longer be executed. She had to make an emergency trip to Nashville to work out a new plan.

“We had a lot of confidence in their ability to help us execute a great event.”
— Lisa Shreve, MPP

Even though the change was stressful, she says the MCC handled it as well as possible. They paid for her extra trip to Nashville, and the center’s CEO flew to Washington after the event to discuss onsite hiccups. “That spoke volumes,” she says. “It was important that he listened to some of the challenges we had and wanted to provide good customer service.”

Overall, AHIP’s experience was extremely positive. “We wanted to play off Nashville being Music City, so we had an opening night reception with Martina McBride,” Shreve says. “It was just a phenomenal success. It put everyone in a great frame of mind.” Switching from a meeting format to a concert format requires a quick room change, but the convention center staff pulled it off without a hitch.

AHIP also brought in several high-profile speakers, including Bill Clinton and Mitt Romney. MCC coordinated with the Secret Service to meet the necessary security protocols.

Shreve says she got great feedback from many of the event’s 4,000 attendees. They loved the city’s walkability, restaurants and numerous free music venues. AHIP saw an increase in registrations for their Nashville event, which is one reason they’re planning to return in 2019.

“Nashville is an ideal location for meetings and conferences because it is both authentic and accessible,” says Kay Witt, chief sales officer for the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation. It also now has the infrastructure to host major events: The $635 million, LEED Gold-certified MCC is attracting both people and new development. In addition to the already-completed Omni Nashville Hotel, Hyatt Place Downtown and, most recently, The Westin Nashville — adjacent to Music City Center — Davidson County expects to open 3,200 hotel rooms in the next two years.

“Whether by plane, train or automobile, Nashville is easily accessible by all modes of transportation,” Witt says. “Once you’ve arrived, Nashville’s entertainment district is highly walkable. It’s surrounded by attractions, restaurants and live music venues, many of which you can enjoy free of charge.” Put all these things together, and it’s easy to see why Nashville is a must-visit location.


The Republican National Convention drew an estimated 50,000 people to Cleveland. “It brought a tremendous amount of worldwide media attention that was overwhelmingly positive,” says Mike Burns, CMP, senior vice president of convention sales and services for Destination Cleveland. “People told us they want to come back with their families.” And meeting planners who didn’t think Cleveland had the chops to host a major event are now taking a look.

Cleveland is home to the Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland (which opened in 2013 as the Cleveland Convention Center and was rebranded last summer). It has 225,000 sf of class A exhibit space, 35 meeting rooms and a 32,000-sf ballroom with views of the city’s lakefront. Among the sustainability features at the LEED Silver building is an onsite garden with vegetables, herbs, chickens and bees. The majority of the eggs consumed at the center come from the garden, as does all of the honey.

The community has 19 hotels downtown, including the new 600-room Hilton Cleveland Downtown, which is attached to the convention center. “Our restaurant scene is probably the most significant in the Midwest and as good as any in the country,” Burns says. The city also has several new or renovated public gathering spaces, including a new plaza adjoining the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. These and other amenities are within walking distance of the convention center, which makes it easier for visitors to get out and see them.

Cleveland has invested $3.5 billion in visitor-related infrastructure since 2011. It shows in every aspect of the city. “All the things we’ve talked about over the last four years are now in place,” Burns says. “It’s no longer, ‘We’re going to build it.’ It’s already done.”


Events such as Austin City Limits and South by Southwest have put Austin on the map in recent years. That’s what got Chris Mahaffey, CAE, thinking about hosting the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons’ (ACFAS) 2016 scientific conference in the Texas city.

His experience in Austin surpassed all of his expectations. “Austin just fit us like a glove,” Mahaffey says. “All of the hotels we needed were within walking distance. There were tons of restaurants nearby. The airport was superb. The convention center and CVB were great to work with. They’re genuinely very nice people.” Plus, members were excited to have an excuse to visit Austin.

“Austin just fit us like a glove. All of the hotels we needed were within walking distance. There were tons of restaurants nearby. The airport was superb. The convention center and CVB were great to work with. They’re genuinely very nice people.”
— Chris Mahaffey, CAE

ACFAS’ annual conference is a fairly standard mix of lectures, discussions and exhibits, Mahaffey says, and the convention center was a great fit. ACFAS hosted two events offsite: an opening reception at Brazos Hall, a warehouse turned special event space; and a party at Buffalo Billiards, which Mahaffey describes as a giant old-school pool hall.

Attendees had very positive feedback about all of the physical spaces as well at the community. “They liked the feel,” he says. “Austin does have tall buildings, but the area we were in was still very much of a human scale.”

Attendance at the Austin meeting climbed a whopping 17 percent, which Mahaffey attributes to the host city. He shares this advice: “Book more space than you think you’ll need because your attendance will probably skyrocket.”

“Austin is a new destination that people have heard about and want to come to,” says Steve Genovesi, senior vice president of sales for the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau. “With the new hotel inventory that’s coming in, we can now attract groups we were never able to accommodate before.”

White Lodging plans to break ground in 2017 on a 615-room Marriott with 65,000 sf of meeting space. The hotel, downtown near the Austin Convention Center (ACC), will open in 2019. The Fairmont Austin, which is set to open in 2017, will add 1,048 hotel rooms and 106,000 sf of meeting space. A pedestrian bridge will connect the Fairmont to the ACC.

Austin has a lot to offer besides sleeping and meeting rooms. “If you walk out any door of the convention center you’ll be going toward a different entertainment district,” Genovesi says. “Sixth Street is like Bourbon Street and has lots of live music. Second Street has shopping and high-end restaurants, much like Rodeo Drive. The South Congress area is like Greenwich Village.” Everything is walkable or accessible by public transportation or pedicab.

“Our airport has dramatically increased its flights,” Genovesi adds. “It’s a top-tier airport with 10 different airlines.” The website Cheapflights put Austin-Bergstrom International 16th on their 2015 Airport Affordability Index. Whether they’re coming from the West Coast, East Coast or an international destination, attendees will easily and happily find their way.

Miami Beach

Associations seeking warm weather and beautiful beaches for meetings should think Miami Beach, one of two Florida destinations that made our movers-and-shakers list.

“Miami Beach is a great city because it’s compact and cosmopolitan, but it also has all of the amenities of a resort,” says Daniel Sacerio, spokesperson for the Miami Beach Visitor & Convention Authority. “It has the beach, it has top culinary options and it has the famous nightlife.” But it also has options you don’t normally see in a beach town, including three major museums: The Bass, a contemporary art museum; Wolfsonian, a modern art museum; and the Jewish Museum.

The Miami Beach Convention Center is in the midst of a $615 million renovation that’s expected to wrap up in 2018. The LEED-certified facility will have more than 500,000 sf of exhibit space, a 60,000-sf mixed-use ballroom and 81 new breakout rooms.

Complementing the convention center expansion is the development of several new hotels. 1 Hotel South Beach is described as a “mission-driven luxury hotel” that will feature organic foods, hemp-blend mattresses and a fleet of electric Teslas. The Fasano Hotel, a Brazilian luxury hotel, is opening its first U.S. hotel in Miami Beach in 2017.

“Miami Beach is a place where you can be single and mingle, but it’s also very family-friendly,” Sacerio says. “If you have a conference and people want to bring their spouse and children, they can have a great family vacation too.”

National Harbor, Maryland

If you’ve never heard of National Harbor, you’re not alone. This planned community on the outskirts of Washington, DC, has only existed for eight years. But it’s developed a robust infrastructure in that relatively short period of time.

“The Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center is our crown jewel in terms of meetings and conventions,” says Bruce Gudenberg, executive director of Visit National Harbor. The venue has 500,000 sf of meeting space and a full-service convention hotel with 2,000 rooms. The brand new, $1.3 billion MGM National Harbor, which opens in December, will add 50,000 sf of meeting space and 308 rooms, as well as amenities such as gaming and dining.

National Harbor has several other benefits for convention attendees. Washington is less than a mile away. That means people can travel into the city for meetings, lobbying trips or cultural opportunities without having to stay inside the city. The community has more than 30 restaurants, and a Tanger Outlets center provides outstanding shopping. Guests can ride the National Harbor Carousel or take a spin on the 180-foot-high Capital Wheel.

Although National Harbor isn’t the standard convention destination, Gudenberg says all its service providers are very willing to pull together to deliver quality events for attendees. “As a planned city, we’ve been very focused on transportation, green spaces and making things environmentally friendly.” Benefits such as these are already drawing big events such as the Scripps National Spelling Bee and Conservative Political Action Conference on an annual basis.


Houston will host Super Bowl LI in 2017. That’s bringing big changes to many parts of the city, including the convention district, which recently was rebranded as the Avenida Houston. The area is adding 10 new restaurants, including a Mexican establishment from local celebrity restaurant team Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught. Ten new art installations from local creatives are going up. The city recently shrank the Avenida de las Americas, the road that runs past the convention center, from six lanes to two to provide better pedestrian access to the area’s many amenities.

People who haven’t traveled to Houston for a while will notice one of the biggest changes immediately upon arriving at the George R. Brown Convention Center: Discovery Green is a new 12-acre urban park that abuts the building. According to Peter McStravick, chief development officer for Houston First, it provides a nice place for conventioneers and draws locals who provide that sought-after slice of community culture.

Houston also has made two major additions to the hotel inventory and both are connected to the convention center: The new Marriott Marquis, scheduled to open in December, will offer 1,000 rooms and 100,000 sf of meeting space. The existing Hilton Americas-Houston has 1,200 rooms and more than 90,000 sf of meeting space. More hotels planned for 2017 and 2018 will add an additional 1,700 rooms.

The convention center itself is wrapping up a $250 million renovation. One of the most notable new features is the clear glass front doors that look out on Discovery Green. “People didn’t feel there was a park outside that they could go out and enjoy,” McStravick says. “Now those who are inside the building can see the skyline in the background and Discovery Green in the foreground. The people outside can look in and see what’s going on.”

West Palm Beach

The second Florida destination on our list owes much of its up-and-coming status to the new Hilton West Palm Beach, a 12-story hotel that is attached to the 350,000-sf Palm Beach County Convention Center. With 400 guest rooms and 43 suites, the hotel has helped the city make major gains in accommodation. The property has 24,000 sf of interior gathering spaces and 4,800 sf of outdoor space.

Steve Crist, associate vice president of meeting and convention sales for Discover the Palm Beaches, says West Palm Beach has many other features that make it a great place for meetings. “We are a very popular destination for clients looking at South Florida, as we have all the diversity without the density.” West Palm Beach is a great jumping-off point for the 38 communities in Palm Beach County, including Boca Raton and Delray Beach. And getting around the region getting easier.

“Brightline, a new high-speed train, is coming on board next year,” Crist says. “It will connect Miami and Fort Lauderdale to downtown West Palm Beach, and is only blocks from the new Hilton and convention center. That will make it much easier for international customers to arrive here. Once the attendees are here, there is no need for a car. Everything is walkable, and you’re less than two miles from the beach.”

New Orleans

For decades the Big Easy was one of the top convention destinations in the country. When Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, its meetings business came to a screeching halt.

Eleven years later, New Orleans is back, and it’s better than ever. “The city has grown really well since Katrina,” says Pam Ballinger, CMP, senior director of meeting and exhibits for the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). “It used to be just the French Quarter. Following Hurricane Katrina, the city really developed and raised up the whole Warehouse District, which is closer to the convention center, anyway. That’s been a good development for convention attendees.”

2016 marked the first time AACR had been back to the city. They chose New Orleans because it’s one of few places in the country that can accommodate groups of their size (this year’s event drew 19,500 people).

Ballinger says their experience was very positive. “The convention center staff was amazing, and the CVB was wonderful to work with,” she says. “They offered the quintessential Southern hospitality. They really want your experience to be good.”

When AACR announced that vice president Joe Biden would be the event’s closing speaker, staff at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center did a great job of coordinating with the advance team to implement safety measures. “They had experience with VIPs at that level, so they know the ropes, which was very helpful,” Ballinger says.

For their part, the CVB was a great help as well. Their staff know the city really well, Ballinger says, so they were able to suggest great venues for offsite events such as a Friday night gala. When AACR ran out of hotel rooms, the CVB diligently reached out to every hotel in the city to check their availability. In the end, they were able to secure rooms for all of the event’s attendees.

Ballinger says the main thing she’ll do differently when AACR returns to New Orleans in 2022 is reserve backup hotel rooms earlier. “If you’re not taking the whole convention center, ask what’s on the other end,” she advises. New Orleans’ conference space is large enough to accommodate two sizeable groups, and a second convention can easily gobble up a large portion of the community’s accommodations.

It’s hard to believe that with 22,000 hotel rooms, there would ever be a time when planners couldn’t find enough space. But New Orleans is regaining its place as a hot destination, both for conventions and leisure travel.

“New Orleans is an all-encompassing destination with something to offer every visitor, including 1,400+ restaurants and a countless number of amazing attractions, tours and experiences,” says Cara Banasch, MBA, senior vice president of business development and strategy for the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau (NOCVB). “Attendees will instantly hear, see, smell and taste what makes New Orleans so unique. The NOCVB offers great tools to help planners fold the rich culture of the city into their programming.”

Since Katrina, the convention center has been extensively renovated. It now includes a 60,000-sf Great Hall and 25,000 sf of prefunction space. The city envisions eventually transforming the convention district to make it even better. Plans for the $700 million redevelopment include a 1,200-room convention hotel, a linear park to connect several neighborhoods to the Mississippi River, new dining and shopping options, better lighting and new streetscapes. Although plans for the transformation are on hold for now, this is yet another improvement that would ensure New Orleans remains one of the hottest convention cities in the country.


Atlanta. The Georgia capital is already a major destination for conventions, sporting events and entertainment. The community recently embarked on several major projects to keep the community at the top of everyone’s list of must-visit destinations. Atlanta’s 2020 Vision calls for a tremendous level of development near the Georgia World Congress Center, Atlanta’s convention center. The building is being expanded to create an area with 1 million sf of contiguous exhibit space. The convention center’s overseeing body is working on a convention hotel that will provide up to 1,100 rooms and additional meeting space. By 2020, Georgia will have finished building Mercedes-Benz Stadium and adapting the Centennial Olympic Park so it’s more event- and pedestrian-friendly. All of these changes will give meeting planners more great options for onsite and offsite events.

St. Louis. The iconic St. Louis Arch celebrated its 50th birthday in 2015. To mark this momentous event, the city embarked on a three-year effort to make the area surrounding the Arch (and nearby convention center) more enjoyable for residents and visitors. One of the main parts in the CityArchRiver project is creating a continuous walkway from the America’s Center Convention Complex and surrounding hotels to the redeveloped riverfront park. The city is expanding attractions such as the historic Old Courthouse and Museum of Westward Expansion, and adding amenities such as outdoor performance spaces and bicycling trails. New or remodeled hotels around the convention center have added or improved 1,750 rooms in the past few years. This facelift is making St. Louis worth a serious look for conventions of all sizes.

Indianapolis. It’s hard to call a destination that was recently named USA Today’s No. 1 convention city “up-and-coming.” But there’s enough happening in the Indiana capital to give it a closer look. This year and next, Indianapolis will open six new hotels that will add 1,100 rooms. One of the most exciting is a boutique hotel in the 21c Museum brand. The hotel will be adjacent to a new art museum the company is creating in the town’s Old City Hall. Condé Nast recently called Indy “The Most Underrated Food City in the U.S.” Indianapolis International Airport now offers nonstop service to 43 destinations and has the fastest Wi-Fi service of any airport in the country.

Detroit. The Cobo Center, offering 723,000 sf of exhibit space, completed a three-phase, $279 million improvement project in July 2015 that included enhanced technology offerings, such as a broadcast studio, digital signage, internet and Wi-Fi upgrades, and an extensive fiber network. Cobo recently debuted an outdoor terrace called Cobo Square as part of the center’s 45,000 sf of outdoor flex space. Since the renovation, the Cobo Center, which overlooks the Detroit River, has doubled its annual number of event days.

About 25 miles south of Detroit in Novi, Michigan, is the Suburban Collection Showplace, a privately owned exposition, conference and banquet center. A major expansion, to be completed in 2017, will add a 200,000-sf addition on the event and exposition center’s west side. Once the expansion is compete, the facility will span 600,000 sf.  AC&F

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