"The distinctions between 'first-tier cities' and so-called 'second-tier cities' have become blurred," asserts Gary LaBranche, vice president for professional development for the Washington D.C. based American Society of Association Executives. "The differences are increasingly less relevant because of the investment in infrastructure and development of convention facilities by the second-tier cities. Many of those cities are now positioned--or will soon be positioned--to compete even more effectively with the larger cities."

The repositioning couldn't come at a better time for the many associations that are finding themselves either priced out or locked out of the seller's market in first-tier cities. And as they take a new look at these destinations, they're discovering all over again that second-tier doesn't mean second-best. "Associations value safe, clean, friendly downtowns," LaBranche says. "And with so many cities on the move, the options are increasing."

Downtown Redevelopment Take Columbus, Ohio, for example, which Joseph Marinelli, vice president of sales and marketing for the Greater Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau, unabashedly describes as "the city with the most going on." That might be an exaggeration, but not by much--there is an incredible amount of development happening in the city, starting with a $73 million expansion and renovation of the Greater Columbus Convention Center that will add 120,000 square feet of exhibition space, a 15,000-square-foot junior ballroom, and another 15,000 square feet of meeting space by the fall of 2000.

Other enhancements include this year's opening of the 22,500-seat Columbus Crew Stadium, the first purpose-built soccer stadium in the country; next year's debut of the 20,000-seat Nationwide Arena for the NHL expansion team the Columbus Blue Jackets; three hotel projects at the convention center; and three new and growing areas for nightlife and entertainment.

"When associations consider a city, they look for facilities, accessibility, and affordability," remarks Marinelli, "but once all of those boxes have been checked, they look for nightlife, attractions, and entertainment--and those things are very new for us."

Marinelli attributes all the activity at least in part to developments in other cities. "We saw the growth around the country, especially in regional cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Indianapolis. We realized it was time to emerge from a university town to a full-fledged convention destination."

Another city that's making upgrades across the board is Louisville, Ky. Already host to six of the top trade shows in the nation, the city is upping the stakes with the debut in June of the expanded Commonwealth Convention Center to just under 300,000 square feet of space, including 150,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space that is column-free.

Ron Scott, the president and CEO of the Louisville and Jefferson County CVB, says that the accompanying hotel development is "nothing short of striking," citing new and planned hotels at and near the convention center, full-service hotels on the grounds of the Kentucky Fair and Expo and at the airport, and a hotel at Caesars, the world's largest casino boat. Located 15 miles southwest of the city, the casino is also adding a golf course and a golf school.

"Business is booming," declares Scott, noting that Louisville hosts at least one citywide convention every month. "And our political and tourism leadership is doing the right kinds of things to accommodate continued growth." Other developments include a $60 million multipurpose waterfront development project, a $700 million-plus expansion at the airport that has doubled the airport's capacity, and the April 2000 opening of the 13,000-seat Louisville Slugger Field.

Growth Spurs Growth In other cities, convention center expansions have been either the catalyst for or the result of citywide infrastructure developments. "In a way, it's coincidental that our convention center is expanding at the same time that we're adding two stadiums," says Robert Imperata, executive vice president of the Greater Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau, "but there's also some logic to it--development spurs development and gets everybody going."

The $267 million expanded center is set to open in 2002, tripling its exhibit space to 350,000 square feet, while in 2001, the Pittsburgh Pirates will get a new 38,000-seat classic baseball stadium, and a new 65,000-seat football stadium will be home to the Steelers. Plans call for a shopping and entertainment complex to span the distance between the two stadiums.

"We've sold the whole thing as a package," says Imperata. "It was always understood that we'd either get all three together or at the very least that the convention center would be the development that had to take priority." He adds that the city has seen tremendous interest from hotel developers and is hopeful that the current headquarters hotel will be expanded and that other new hotels will come on line.

Chattanooga, Tenn., is another city that's included convention developments in its overall cleanup. "I hate to leave town," says Jennye Miller, director of convention development for the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, "because it seems that every day there's another groundbreaking or opening." Miller says it was the opening in 1992 of the Chattanooga Aquarium "that was the linchpin that got the downtown renaissance going." Since then, more than 100 new businesses have opened downtown, including retail and dining outlets. A free electric shuttle that connects the convention center with downtown was introduced and runs every five minutes, and new housing has sprung up "from one end of the city to the other," Miller reports.

Early this year, Chattanooga approved plans to more than double the size of the convention center (increasing exhibit space to 101,000 square feet, meeting space to 35,000 square feet, and prefunction areas to 50,000 square feet). The center's expansion will complement a new conference center set to open in 2001 and last year's debut of the 20,000-seat Finley Stadium.

In Fort Worth, Texas, Douglas Harmon, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the $60 million expansion and renovation of the Fort Worth Convention Center "is associated with a significant redevelopment of the whole southern section of downtown." In large part, that growth has been spurred by the $400 million being spent on transportation-related improvements to make the area more accessible, especially the creation of two rail transit stations that will eventually connect with Dallas, the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, and other locations in the metroplex. Harmon says the city also "anticipates the development of a convention center hotel physically connected to the center," plus additional restaurants, shops, and other entertainment as the area grows.

Another indirect bonus of the city's growth for associations: Nearby Irving has commissioned a feasibility study to determine the viability of adding its own convention center or meeting facility to complement its 70 hotels and 10,000 rooms. "The convention centers in Dallas and Arlington are expanding, and Fort Worth is beginning a dramatic renovation process," explains Jim Clark, executive director of the Irving Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Combined with the near certainty of Opryland and its proposed facility to this market, we've got to insure Irving is in the best competitive position possible."

Convention Center Boom The unprecedented building boom continues across the country, with new and expanded centers slated to add 11 million more square feet of exhibit space by 2003, according to Tradeshow Week, with expansions accounting for 55 percent of the growth and new facilities making up 45 percent. Just a sampling of the dozens of other cities that are increasing exhibit and meeting space includes a 120,000-square-foot addition to Indianapolis's Indiana Convention Center and Dome by spring 2000; expansion of the Minneapolis Convention Center, slated to nearly double the center's exhibit space to 500,000 square feet when completed in spring 2001; enlargement of the La Crosse Center in Wisconsin to include 90,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space by spring 2000; an Oklahoma City Myriad Center expansion to 125,000 square feet in July; an enlargement of the Little Rock (Ark.) Statehouse Convention Center to 83,000 square feet in June; and an expansion of the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County (Fla.) Convention Center to 520,000 total square feet by December 2001.

Fort Lauderdale will also get a new on-site 500-room headquarters hotel, an example of the hotel development that's also taking place in other destinations, sometimes to complement convention center growth, other times simply to shore up the infrastructure. In Cleveland, for example, eight new hotels in will add more than 1,700 guest rooms for a total of 4,600 rooms downtown. "This type of hotel development is a natural result of the billions of dollars invested in Cleveland's renaissance," says Joe Zion, vice president of sales and marketing for the Greater Cleveland Convention and Visitors Bureau. And in St. Louis, construction of a new convention headquarters hotel is under way adjacent to America's Center, which will include both a 916-room Renaissance Hotel and a 165-room Renaissance Suites by 2002. In Milwaukee the Midwest Express Center, opened last summer, will be connected via skywalk to three nearby hotels.

Enhancing Entertainment Many second-tier cities that aren't currently expanding their convention space are putting their efforts into other elements of the overall convention package. Larry Alexander, acting president and CEO of the Metropolitan Detroit Convention and Visitors Bureau, notes, "Association groups that come to this city will quickly discover an entirely new destination, with many more options available for them to use."

One of the biggest developments is the addition of three temporary land-based casinos, which will all open by this fall. All three are also building permanent casinos--each with an attached 800-room hotel, scheduled to open by 2002--which will double the inventory of downtown hotels.

Other big news is the development of two new stadiums: Comerica Park for the Detroit Tigers, slated to open in 2000, shortly followed by a new domed stadium for the Detroit Lions football team. The two stadiums will co-anchor a new sports and entertainment district built around the city's existing theater district (and who would have thought Detroit has the most theater seats in the country after New York?).

Hard Rock Cafe has already picked its place on Columbia Street, dubbed the "Avenue of Fun," and will keep company with other themed restaurants, sports bars, coffeehouses, and microbreweries. Already within a 90-minute flight of 60 percent of the nation's population, the city's airport is also undergoing a $1.6 billion expansion that includes a new terminal following on the heels of its recently expanded international terminal.

Milwaukee already has a similar area of sports bars, cigar bars, and cultural venues called the Water Street Entertainment District, but, says Jill Glazer, spokesperson for the Greater Milwaukee Convention and Visitors Bureau, "Over the past couple of years, it has really become built up and much more polished." And the area isn't just for evening entertainment: At the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, for example, there are free lunchtime concerts every day. Glazer notes that other entertainment areas are also being developed, both to the north and south of Water Street.

"There have been pieces of all this [development] around for the past five years," she says, "but the city has really filled in the cracks and the area has really come into its own now."

Just like second-tier cities across the country. *

At some point in the planning process, associations will go beyond the obvious factors of convention center size and number of hotel rooms to secondary considerations such as museums, attractions, entertainment, and other special-event venues. But for Edward Able, museums aren't simply an afterthought. They're the first thing on his "must-have" list. "We can't even look at a city unless they have a sizable museum community," says Able, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.based American Association of Museums.

In addition to enough museums to host multiple special events for the 4,200 attendees every evening of the five-day annual meeting, Able looks for a city that's "hospitable, vibrant, and has a high quality of life." The city also has to have a good convention center, hotel infrastructure, and vendor selection. All of which the association found in Cleveland this year, a circumstance that didn't surprise Able, although some attendees--who came from all over the world--weren't believers until they were actually at the convention.

"Cleveland has one of the finest collections of cultural assets of any city in the country," declares Able, who says he's been watching the city's renaissance for years. "Despite the spectacular job the bureau has done in getting the word out about Cleveland's new image, many of our delegates were saying, 'Wow, who knew all this was in Cleveland?' "

Able says the only thing he'd like to see in Cleveland is a bigger and better convention center, and apparently city officials agree: A feasibility study is under way to determine the viability of either a new or expanded convention center.

When it comes to second-tier cities overall, Able believes that "they're like Avis--they work harder, produce more, and are a better value."