In a white paper issued this week, the International Association for Exhibition Management strongly criticized the recently published Brookings Institution report on convention centers, which said that the market is overbuilt and demand is waning to the point that it’s not likely to catch up with supply anytime soon. The Brookings report was authored by Heywood Sanders, a professor of public policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a critic of the "arms race" to build convention centers.

The IAEM white paper, "The Rhetoric Versus the Facts: What the Brookings Report Fails to Reveal," countered by saying that the pace of supply expansion has substantially diminished since 2000, and that demand for meeting and exhibition space is rising and will become more robust in the next couple of years.

Specifically, the white paper says the Brookings report omits any reference to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research data that shows a recovery is under way. It also takes issue with the report’s incomplete analysis of business travel trends as reported by Travel Industry Association of America. The Brookings report cites TIA stats that show business travel, in the form of person-trips, declined from 164.3 million in 1999 to 138.2 million in 2003. But the Brookings report fails to show that person-trips increased to 143.7 million in 2004, and is projected to jump to 148.9 million by the end of this year. In 2008, TIA projects it will reach 165 million.

Other critical omissions in the report, according to IAEM:

  • PricewaterhouseCoopers data shows a 14 percent increase in convention attendance in 2004 and a 9 percent jump in "occupied square foot days" (demand for space to attendance ratio) in 2003.
  • The report does not mention cities—including Denver; Milwaukee; Tampa, Fla.; Austin, Texas; and Minneapolis—where recent convention center projects have exceeded performance expectations. Nor does it mention cities like Houston, San Diego, and Miami Beach, where convention center hotel projects have spurred convention center activity.
  • The report does not fully take into account that convention centers are "one of the few public structures that can substantially contribute to the economy and tax bases of local communities."

Finally, IAEM agrees with the Brookings report on two main points: One, that cities should conduct careful analysis of the potential economic impact of convention center projects before breaking ground; and two, that centers, by themselves, cannot revitalize downtown cores.

Look to the cover story of the April issue of Association Meetings for perspectives from the author of the controversial Brookings Report, as well as counterpoints from various industry organizations.

For more information on the IAEM white paper, go to www.iaem.org. For a copy of the Brookings Institution report, click here.