While convention centers were deprived of their usual influx of groups since the onset of the pandemic, many approached the downtime very productively. Initiatives included service such as COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites, acquiring COVID safety certifications and, in some cases, continuing with expansion and renovation projects — an encouraging sign for the future of the conventions industry.
More function space and cosmetic upgrades, such as a new exterior, are critical to accommodating larger groups and creating a favorable attendee impression, respectively. But a convention center project can have a much more profound effect on the growth and success of an association’s meeting. A case in point is the $200 million modernization of Memphis’s convention center, and how it is taking a longtime client’s event to the next level.
Opened as the Memphis Cook Convention Center in 1974, the Renasant Convention Center completed a major upgrade at the end of 2020 and earned GBAC STAR certification that year as well. While the industry was still in the throes of the pandemic, Memphis had an eye on the potential to draw more convention business when meetings rebounded. A primary goal of the transformation was to provide more flexible meeting, exhibit and pre-function spaces. For example, the 118,000-sf, column-free exhibit hall can be subdivided into three separate spaces. Forty-six meeting and breakout rooms are complemented by foyer space with natural light and plenty of informal seating in the new facility.
The Southern Cotton Ginners Association’s (SCGA) Annual Meeting has been held in Memphis for a remarkable 70 years, and the group enjoyed the convention center’s best incarnation earlier this year. “Memphis is a great town that has learned through the years how to adapt and be resilient — but always welcoming,” says Timothy L. Price, executive vice-president of the SCGA. The Renasant Convention Center welcomed thousands of in-person SCGA attendees, representing a large percentage of the usual attendance figure.
However, the event was not entirely business as usual; it was an enhanced experience facilitated by the new meeting rooms. “We [had] a lot more first-class meeting spaces, so what [we did] is increase the number of seminars and meetings that we [synched] in with some of the exhibitors, occurring in the main lobby, which [we dubbed] Meeting Central,” Price says. “We’re finding out that [exhibiting] companies want to have meetings and smaller seminars. So, if you want to have an event that enhances what you’re doing with your booth outside of that area, please do it.” Thus, Meeting Central effectively “enhanced the marketing and reach for exhibitors,” he adds.
When combined with a new virtual component developed during the pandemic, the annual meeting delivered more value to participants, both digitally and physically. “We now have a facility that allows us far more interaction between companies and their customers, and between issues and solutions, than we had before,” Price says. “Before, we were very limited in what we could offer [in terms of seminars].”
This next-level version of the SCGA’s convention might be seen as a reward for the association’s loyalty to Memphis and the convention center throughout the renovation and the pandemic. “It [was] two to three years that we … dealt with a partially renovated convention center space,” Price says. “Having said that, [we entered] into a totally new show. The technology is fantastic — it’s as if the facility is brand new.” But, perhaps more important than these elements, “the newly renovated convention center is in sync with, and complementary to, the direction shows in general are moving.”
Another major convention center that continued its enhancement work throughout the pandemic is the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), which debuted its $1 billion, 1.4 million-sf West Hall expansion last summer. It soon welcomed Informa Markets’ World of Concrete, the first major convention to return to Las Vegas and to the United States post-pandemic. Attendees experienced cutting-edge features of convention center design, such as a 328,000-sf, column-free exhibition space — the largest in North America; an open-air atrium featuring a 10,000-sf digital screen — the largest digital experience in a convention center in the country; and an abundance of natural light. In addition, the West Hall offers a 14,000-sf terrace with panoramic views of the Las Vegas Strip.
Early last fall, another major group took advantage of the new West Hall. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), a longtime partner of the LVCC, brought in about 7,000 delegates and about 360 exhibitors for its 2021 Annual Conference, complemented by a virtual attendance of around 5,000. “It turned out really well,” says Emile K. Davis, CEM, director, exhibits & sponsorships for SHRM. “We utilized West Hall 1 and 2 for the expo, West Hall 3 for our sessions, and West Hall 4 for general sessions. I was fortunate to do the hard-hat tour a few years back, so I had an idea what the building was going to look like and we did some site visits prior to [the meeting]. But, when everything was up and running, we were very pleased with the layout. West Hall 1 and 4 are easily accessible for our concurrent sessions. And we loved the extraordinary mega screen at the front of the main lobby of the foyer. We were able to upload some SHRM content, and we got a big sponsor to be a part of that as well. That was probably our favorite thing about the building.”
An even larger installment of the SHRM Annual Conference is scheduled for the LVCC in 2023. “We’ll be using the West and North Buildings, because prior to the West Hall being built, we usually utilized the Central and the North. We’ll be looking at about 18,000 paid attendees and 700 or so exhibitors,” Davis says.
While Las Vegas’ larger-than-life entertainment scene has made it a perennial draw for conventioneers, many cities that are not entertainment meccas still have a cultural charm that makes them quite marketable to attendees. Sometimes, it is only the convention center’s size that prevents an association group from considering the city. Milwaukee has a blue-collar charm symbolized by attractions such as the Harley-Davidson Museum and Pabst Mansion — built by the founder of Pabst Brewing Co. In a couple of years, many new groups will be able to delve into that culture with the debut of an expanded Wisconsin Center.
At the groundbreaking ceremony that took place last fall, Marty Brooks, Wisconsin Center district president and CEO, remarked, “Today’s groundbreaking is the formal celebration of our $420 million expansion that has been years in the making. Doubling the size of the convention center allows us to execute multiple, simultaneous and overlapping events, bringing even more visitors to Milwaukee. Meeting planners can expect flexible space, robust IT infrastructure, and top-of-the-line health and safety features, along with our signature bold, proud, experience-obsessed delivery of service. I couldn’t be more excited for the future.”
Set to open in the first quarter of 2024, the expanded Wisconsin Center will offer 445,000 sf of total convention space, including a 300,000-sf contiguous exhibit hall; 24 additional meeting rooms for a total of 52, and a rooftop ballroom with a terrace overlooking downtown Milwaukee. In addition, there will be minimum of 400 indoor parking spots and six new loading docks.
“Groups have already booked events in the expanded convention center, and we have received a lot of interest from organizers interested in hosting their events in the new space,” says Leslie Johnson, vice president of sales for VISIT Milwaukee. Among the groups that would benefit from the expanded facility is the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), which has held smaller meetings at the Milwaukee Marriott Downtown.
For the AACTE Annual Meeting, “I love that they put that offer [of meeting at the expanded Wisconsin Center] on the table for us; I think in the past we’ve been a little strapped in terms of space,” says Matthew J. Wales, CAE, CMP, vice president, member services & events for the AACTE. “Education groups tend to be very space heavy in terms of their needs, and this expansion does double the possibilities not just for the city, but for groups that need that extra breakout space to have their annual meeting there. Also, having areas to network and collaborate is very important to our members, and part of what is included with this expansion is new spaces for networking and impromptu conversations.”
Memphis, Las Vegas and Milwaukee are just a few of the compelling U.S. destinations that have or will upgrade their convention center product. In each case, the project has met with resounding approval from association planners. Following is an overview of similar projects that planners do well to have on their radar.
The Charlotte Convention Center’s $126.9 million expansion debuted last fall. Total leasable space increased from 550,000 sf to 600,000 sf, meeting spaces increased from 41 to 55, and approximately 50,000 sf of meeting room and pre-function space was added. A new over-street pedestrian walkway connects to The Westin Charlotte hotel, which has 700 rooms and a nearby light-rail station stop.
Last year, New York City’s iconic Javits Center introduced the results of its highly publicized $1.5 billion expansion. Among the highlights are more than 200,000 sf of new meeting and pre-function space, including a 54,000-sf special events space; upgraded lighting, heating and cooling, and wireless connectivity systems; and a new four-level truck-marshaling facility that can house 200 tractor-trailers. Most recently, the Javits Center debuted a 200,000-sf rooftop space that includes a glass-enclosed pavilion, outdoor terrace and 1-acre working farm.
A new build, the MAPS 3 Oklahoma City Convention Center, when it opened in 2020, replaced Oklahoma City’s aging convention center. Located east of Scissortail Park, the $288 million building features a 200,730-sf exhibit hall divisible into four spaces, 45,000 sf of meeting space configurable to yield up to 27 breakouts, a 30,000-sf ballroom and a 9,700-sf junior ballroom, each with park views. The convention center’s atriums are sure to make an impact on arriving attendees with a public art experience called Virtual Sky, composed of an array of anodized titanium rods suspended on aircraft cable alternating with strands of LED lights. This state-of-the-art convention center is supported by the new 605-room Omni Oklahoma City Hotel next door.
Also completed in 2020, the newly LEED Silver-certified Miami Beach Convention Center expansion has afforded new opportunities for association groups headed to one of Florida’s most vibrant destinations. Project highlights include a new 60,000-sf ballroom, 127,000 sf of new meeting spaces, and augmented power and IT connectivity capacities across a 500,000-sf of exhibit hall. In addition, more than 6 acres of parking lot space have been transformed into a public park.
Renovated, expanded and renamed, Sacramento’s convention center is now known as the SAFE Credit Union Convention Center. After 2.5 years of construction and an investment of $180 million, the city introduced a GBAC STAR-accredited facility that offers 240,000 sf of function space, including 160,000 sf of exhibit space in four halls, 40,000 sf of flexible ballroom space and a 15,000-sf outdoor plaza. West, East and North lobbies have their own entrances, ballrooms and meeting spaces, allowing different groups to be hosted simultaneously.
A five-year, $557 million Convention Center Development District Project is underway. However, the reconstruction of Convention Center Boulevard between Poydras and Henderson streets in the Warehouse District, and the construction of a 7.5-acre public park that runs the length of the building, are complete. The park features green space, water features and art installations. The project also calls for $379 million in upgrades, including new meeting rooms, public areas, restrooms, audiovisual equipment, and escalators and elevators.
The Savannah Convention Center expansion is on track to be completed in the late summer of 2023, and that’s good news for association planners looking to book this quintessential Southern city in Georgia. The enhanced building will include 200,000 sf of exhibit hall space, a new 40,000-sf ballroom and 32 customizable breakout rooms. Load in/out and parking capacities will also be enhanced with a new 58 foot-wide hangar door and 900-space parking garage. The convention center will also boast a new entrance with an all-glass façade, as well as additional outdoor space.
Tampa will have an expanded convention center by the summer of 2023, thanks to a $38 million investment. The project includes a 16,000 sf, two-level addition offering 18 new meeting rooms and a terrace overlooking the Hillsborough River. Existing meeting space will be outfitted with new carpeting, paint, new air-wall fabric and upgraded lighting. Currently, the GBAC STAR-certified Tampa Convention Center offers 200,000 total sf, including a 36,000-sf ballroom and 35 meeting rooms.
Seattle will soon be ready to welcome more group business with an expanded Seattle Convention Center (SCC), formerly the Washington State Convention Center. Last summer saw the topping out of the Addition (aka Summit building), which will double the existing capacity of the convention center, adding approximately 255,000 sf of exhibition space, 120,000 sf of meeting rooms and 60,000 sf of ballroom space when it opens early next year.
Collectively, these various convention center projects paint a promising big picture for the future of the convention industry, one that includes a multitude of new opportunities for association groups. | AC&F |