Focus On: Convention Centers
For many cities, convention centers are their biggest tourism asset—literally and figuratively. A convention center can be the economic heart of a city, bringing in people and dollars. Around the country, new facilities are being constructed while others are being renovated, expanded and upgraded, as cities big and small do their best to compete for meetings.
An expanded convention district in Houston at the George R. Brown Convention Center is part of a master plan involving the center. It calls for a hotel near each of the building’s four corners, including the already-built Hilton Americas-Houston, which opened in 2003. “This year marks the 25th anniversary of the George R. Brown, and we’re committed to making our convention district everything it can be in the years ahead,” says Dawn Ullrich, president and CEO of Houston First Corporation, which oversees management of the city-owned convention center. “Our plans call for soliciting the best ideas from the development community to help us achieve our goal of adding rooms to our convention district and increase the vibrancy of our convention business.” An extension to the convention center on the south end, in the space where a parking garage currently sits, is also planned, with a new garage to be built on the building’s north side.
It’s not only major cities adding new meetings facilities. Small cities such as Provo, Utah, are opening convention centers, too. Why would planners look at a city such as Provo when Salt Lake City is bigger and closer to an international airport? “Utah Valley is more affordable than larger cities with all the amenities of a larger city, making this destination of interest especially in today’s economy,” says Charlene Christensen, director of services at the Utah Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau. The Utah Valley Convention Center in Provo isn’t trying to compete with Salt Lake City for large conferences, but is instead focused on smaller events and meetings. The LEED Silver building has 83,578 square feet of flexible meeting space, including a rooftop garden with scenic views of the Wasatch Mountains. Its location is within walking distance of 39 Provo restaurants, and more than 1,300 hotel rooms are available in the area. The new facility is located four miles from the Provo Municipal Airport. “Corporations and companies have been hosting regional and national meetings elsewhere. With the available meeting, pre-function and garden space, many of these meetings can now be hosted,” says Christensen.
Planners are witnessing a number of convention center renovations throughout the country. A $786 million renovation was completed last year at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Convention Center. The facility’s total space was doubled, creating the largest contiguous exhibit space in the Northeast, at 2.3 million square feet. It can accommodate several events and conferences at once, and the center’s expansion has spurred hotel construction in the city. An estimated 2,500 hotel rooms will be added by next year.
The Anaheim Convention Center is also expanding, adding a 100,000-sq.-ft. outdoor event space that can be used year-round. The California Dental Association has hosted its bi-annual meeting, CDA Presents, at the convention center for more than 30 years. “The convention center offers plenty of exhibit hall space for our more than 550 exhibitors and 26,000 attendees as well as large meeting rooms for our workshops and seminars,” says Debi Irwin, vice president of CDA Meetings and Conventions. “The additional outdoor space will be useful for attendees to relax or enjoy Anaheim’s gorgeous weather. All in all, the Anaheim Convention Center is a top-notch facility that’s within walking distance to Disneyland and a wide range of restaurants and hotels.”
A big trend in convention center operation and design is the push to go green. The Utah Valley Convention Center, for example, was built with LEED certification in mind. In Minnesota, the staff at the Minneapolis Convention Center is working to significantly reduce the venue’s water and energy usage while increasing its recycling efforts. The center partnered with Renewable Choice Energy, a national provider of renewable energy credits, to offer meeting planners green event packages that offset the environmental impacts of event-related emissions and electricity use. The center’s solar roof panels produce more than 750,000-kilowatt hours of electricity each year, enough to power 85 homes. Jeff Johnson, executive director of the convention center, believes the facility’s eco-friendly features and improvements will attract more national and international conventions and meetings. “More and more, meeting planners and their clients are seeking venues that incorporate sustainable practices into operations,” says Johnson.
In the arid Southwest, several convention centers are doing their best to go green. San Antonio’s Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center recently underwent $40 million in renovations, adding a Texas-themed ballroom that flows out onto a riverfront patio and a 29,000-sq.-ft. outdoor event space for groups of up to 1,500. Eco-friendly upgrades included solar film on windows, energy-efficient lighting and digital direction signs. The ultimate goal is to reduce the center’s electrical usage by more than 35 percent.
Similarly, the Las Cruces Convention Center, LEED Gold certified, places a strong emphasis on green meetings. Completed in December 2010, the 55,000-sq.-ft. center’s features include a solar photovoltaic system in the parking lot; electricity produced from solar, wind, geothermal and other environmental sources; water-efficient landscaping; the use of low emission and recycled materials; and access to alternative transportation options.
While the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system is a well-known environmental certification system, there are other green programs in which convention centers can participate. SMG-managed convention facilities take part in SMG Green IMPACT, a voluntary program launched with the intent to create consistency and uniformity across SMG’s 225 facilities in North America, including 68 convention centers. Lindsay Arell, sustainable program director at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, is also the innovator behind SMG Green IMPACT.
“One of the areas of focus will be making sure all facilities are measuring the same thing and have the same best practices in place, so if an SMG facility says it has recycling, there’s a consistent way it will approach and track it,” says Arell. “So when planners go into an SMG facility and recognize the SMG Green IMPACT program, they will have an understanding of how comprehensive that sustainability program really is.”
New builds, renovations and eco-friendly efforts can elevate a convention center’s status, but small extras sometimes can have a big effect. In this technology-driven world, planners and attendees want to be connected at all times. Several convention centers have responded and are now offering free Wi-Fi. The Las Vegas Convention Center partnered with Smart City Networks to give Wi-Fi access to all meeting attendees in public areas.
“In today’s always connected world, Wi-Fi is features another vital tool that is essential to conducting business, and we pride ourselves in providing the best possible business environment for our visitors,” says Terry Jicinsky, senior vice president of operations for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which owns the center. Other Smart City convention center clients include the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle and Colorado Convention Center in Denver.
Another practice gaining popularity in the meetings world is farm-to-table food programs. The National Conference Center in Leesburg, Va., uses food from local farms and its own on-site herb garden in the more than 2,000 meals prepared daily. NCC’s executive chef Craig Mason believes in the power of healthy eating on the brain. “Some people don’t realize the power that food has over us all, including its influence on how we think and react in meetings,” Mason says.
“At NCC, we are striving to emphasize the importance of healthy eating for a variety of reasons.” The Knoxville Convention Center is also focused on farm-to-table practices, using locally and regionally grown food, along with serving vegetables and herbs from its own backyard. The newly opened Sheraton Fairplex Conference Center in Pomona, Calif., not only has farm-to-table meals, but also offers table-to-farm, where chefs prepare meals tableside in the garden.
With limited budgets and dollars to stretch, planners want the most bang for their buck. Bigger venues provide more meeting space for large conventions and have the option to hold several events at once. Smaller facilities are more affordable and can provide meetings with fewer people a personalized atmosphere. All cities realize that convention centers draw in money and tourism, and are ready to compete for meetings and events. The more a facility has to offer—whether it’s a new expansion with more meeting space or its eco-friendly efforts and green initiatives—the greater chance it will draw in desired conferences and events.