As the sun set over the "old" Orange County Convention Center November 21, festivities began for the grand opening of the new, 1 million-square-foot, North/South complex. Local officials say the development marks the dawn of a new era for business in the greater Orlando area.

"It takes us to the next level in hosting the major shows," said Richard Crotty, Orange County chairman. With the expansion, the OCCC now has 2.1 million square feet of exhibit space, making it the second largest convention center in the United States, behind McCormick Place in Chicago, which clocks in at 2.2 million square feet.

The first group to occupy the North/South building, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, was in town with its 30,000 delegates during the CenterFest celebration. The trade show floor looked like an amusement park, as the latest rides and attractions lit up the newly christened exhibit space. IAPPA will be the anchor trade show for the complex, returning to Orange County seven times over the next 25 years.

During the past several years, the center had to turn away $300 million in business because it was too small, said Tom Ackert, executive director of the OCCC. Going forward, the goal is to increase business by 50 percent and book 75 to 250 events per year, he said. For 2004, the center is looking at a 30 percent increase in business. Through 2028, 737 events have already been signed up at the center, generating an estimated $16 billion for the area economy.

The expansion coincides with a new marketing and sales initiative by the Orlando Convention & Visitors Bureau. The CVB is refocusing its message to the meetings and convention industry by highlighting the area’s more grown-up, upscale pursuits. To come up with the new direction, the bureau asked meeting planners what Orlando needed to do to maintain its position as a leading meeting destination. The answers were: Differentiate the meetings market from the leisure market by showcasing more sophisticated pursuits, such as golf, spas, fine dining, and trendy shops. "Orlando’s new marketing initiatives will emphasize the broad scope of more mature leisure amenities that are well-suited for the new business traveler," said William Peeper, president of the Orlando CVB.

While there are 12,000 rooms within 1.5 miles of the convention center, research indicated that the area needs more hotels that are "convention-oriented" near the center. With the opening of more than 1,500 rooms this summer at the new Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott complex at Grande Lakes Orlando, and several more new hotels in the pipeline, it appears that that need will be met.

To further stimulate interest in the region, the Orlando CVB hopes to give away a 2005 BMW Z4 to a lucky meeting planner. Beginning January 1, 2004, meeting planners who submit a request for proposal either online, by fax, or mail, will be registered to win the sports car. The winner will be selected in a drawing at the end of 2004.