As the millennium approaches, cities across the country are building new convention centers and expanding existing ones. But to thrive in an increasingly competitive market, centers must offer much more than exhibit space.
"It's kind of amazing," says Michael Hughes, manager of research services, Tradeshow Week Custom Research in Los Angeles, referring to the convention center boom. "The interesting thing is [the growth] is across the board. First-, second-, and third-tier cities have been expanding and building new space for the last ten years." And that trend shows no sign of abating, Hughes adds. "Yes, some years [there are] more announcements than others. It's like the stock market. There are dips here, plateaus there; but generally, it's been a steady upward climb."
The Midwest Express Center, in Milwaukee, is one of five facilities that opened this year. Offering 188,000 square feet of exhibit space, the center is the second-largest of the new convention halls.
This past year has been one of those plateau years. According to Tradeshow Week's annual analysis of 374 exhibition facilities, exhibit space in the U.S. and Canada now totals 64.2 million square feet, showing an increase of only 1.2 million square feet from July 1997 through August 1998. That increase is lower than the ten-year average of 2.3 million square feet. Accounting for more than half that growth in space is the Hawai'i Convention Center, which opened in June with 350,000 square feet. It is the biggest of five facilities unveiled this year.
A surge of growth is projected for the new millennium. Eleven million square feet of new exhibit space--including more than 72 construction and expansion projects--is slated for development over the next five years. Leading the growth spurt is the proposed 2.2-million-square-foot World Expo Center in Central Florida (see ",Style," page 29), the 600,000-square-foot Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, and the new Washington (D.C.) Convention Center.
That's right, even the nation's capital, which must jump through more political hoops than other cities, finally got a green light on a new convention hall. The proposal had to be approved by Congress and the President. Clinton signed off on the project just before he left for his summer stay in Martha's Vineyard, Mass. The new 2.3-million-square-foot center, scheduled for a March 2003 opening, will be three times bigger than the current facility.
Meanwhile, the country's largest convention centers are getting bigger. The Las Vegas Convention Center completes its $45 million expansion this month. It will be the largest single-level facility in the country, offering 1.9 million square feet of meeting and exhibit space. In New Orleans, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center will add more than 500,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space by January 1999. Other top destinations planning center expansions include Anaheim, Calif., and Orange County, Fla.
Driving the construction boom is a "very, very competitive market," according to Hughes. The trade show industry is healthy, he says, with expositions generally growing between five and seven percent per year in square feet. On the other hand, "there's not a groundswell of new events launched each year. It's almost impossible to instantly launch a megashow." Although he points to some exceptions, such as Internet World, "there are not many industries that grow as fast as the Internet." That means "the pie stays relatively the same every year."
Destinations must up the ante to compete successfully for their slice of the pie. So competitive is the market that staff at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, in New York, stymied in their expansion plans, picked up shovels (figuratively speaking) and got to work. (See sidebar, right.)
Size Isn't Everything To thrive in the market, centers must add more than space, says Christine Shimasaki, CMP, vice president, sales and marketing, at the San Diego Convention Center. "What I have learned from our customers is that bigger is not necessarily better," she says. "Yes, we are expanding, but we are also meeting more of the customers' growing needs."
The most pressing need is for advanced technology capabilities. "Wired centers--that's key," Hughes says. Many venues, including San Diego, are upgrading their technology infrastructure to sharpen their competitive edge. Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Convention Center, for instance, is investing $700,000 to enhance the center's network infrastructure and to purchase the latest in audio and videoconferencing capabilities.
"Right now, as far as I know, the Dallas Convention Center is the only one with wireless Internet connections," states Steven Hacker, CAE, president, International Association for Exposition Management, based in Dallas. "It won't be the only facility with that service for long, he predicts. "That competitive advantage cannot remain unchallenged."
Centers need more Internet connectivity, wireless or otherwise. "I think what you will begin seeing is Internet cafes, or business lounges, similar to those at airports, where a businessperson can go and have a private place to sit at a desk and compose e-mail," he says. "These things are inevitable."
The San Diego Convention Center is one of more than a dozen centers with expansion plans in the works. Scheduled for a fall 2001 completion, the addition will double the center's existing exhibit space to more than half a million square feet.
No matter what cyber trappings centers have, nothing replaces good, old-fashioned customer service. The Northern Kentucky Convention & Visitors Bureau developed what it says is the meeting industry's first "unconditional guarantee program." If a planner is not completely satisfied with his or her meeting at the new convention center (scheduled for a February 1999 grand opening), the group gets a day's free rental at the center.
Research showed that the new facility will attract clients meeting in a convention hall, instead of a hotel, for the first time, says Tom Caradonio, president and CEO, Northern Kentucky CVB. Because those prospective clients are concerned about the service they will receive in a convention center, the bureau initiated the guarantee to show that "our goal is to provide hotel-quality service," explains Caradonio.
Centers must provide not only quality treatment, but a wider range of services, according to IAEM's Steven Hacker. In the future, we are going to see what you might call the full-service convention center, he predicts, with food courts, fine restaurants, travel services, medical facilities, and business centers.
Location, Location, Location The convention center is not the only player in a meeting's success. The destination is also crucial, says Ty Stroh, president, Greater Columbus (Ohio) CVB. Columbus and other cities are seeing tremendous growth in the downtown areas. About two billion dollars is being pumped into Columbus, according to Stroh, not only to expand the convention center and airport, but also to build new attractions such as shopping and entertainment complexes, a science center, and a 20,000-seat arena.
For the near future planners can expect to see more expansions and new facilities, says Hughes. "You will probably keep seeing [growth] until the market peaks," he forecasts. And that's not likely to happen in the near future, he says. "The building boom is projected to continue well into the next decade." *
Do It Yourself. That's what show organizers desperate for more space at the Jacob. K. Javits Convention Center in New York decided recently. With Javits expansion plans stuck in political quagmire, George Little Management (GLM), Inc., White Plains, N.Y., working in cooperation with Javits, spent $4.5 million to build the Javits North Pavilion, completed in late September.
The steel-supported, column-free structure, with air conditioning, heating, rest rooms, and food service stations, has approximately 30,000 net square feet of exhibit space, accommodating about 300 booths.
Javits will handle operations and maintenance, and will lease the space to other show and event organizers when GLM is not using it. Says Javits president and CEO Gerald T. McQueen, "We had to take this action not only to furnish more space for current shows, but also to provide greater flexibility for new exhibitions desiring to come to the [Javits] Center."
A crowded calendar and limited space are forcing Javits to turn away business. With 760,000 square feet of exhibit space, it cannot accommodate the largest trade shows. And it lacks the meeting space required for events that have conference programs--as mostdo.
Compounding the crunch, demand is up dramatically since the labor force was replaced with people hand-picked by, and hired through, Javits management. In 1998, 140 events--including 77 major trade shows--used nearly 20 million gross square feet of exhibit and meeting space.
As New York state and city politicians continue to squabble over Javits expansion sites, environmental concerns, and turf issues, some suggest that many of the conflicts will be resolved after the November gubernatorial election. Fran Reiter, president and CEO of the New York City Convention & Visitors Bureau, holds out hope: "Everyone who has a role to play in the expansion, from government to the private sector, understands that we have a need that must be met," she says. "I'm optimistic that the issues--complex as they are--can and will be solved in the next year." --Rayna Skolnik