Heads up, McCormick. The Osceola (Fla.) County Commission has granted initial approval for the development of the World Expo Center (WEC), a $1.1 billion, mixed-use project that includes a 2.4 million-square-foot exhibition facility. If the plan comes to fruition, the facility will be the country's biggest, outdistancing Chicago's 2.2 million-square-foot McCormick Place.

The WEC aims to capture the nation's biggest trade shows (it is not marketing at all to consumer shows), and is already showing a 32 percent occupancy for 2001, says Ken McAvoy, WEC vice president. But that news may be not be welcome news for its neighbor, the Orange County Convention Center. The WEC will be located only five miles away, and that factor is creating some controversy.

Currently offering planners 1.1 million square feet of exhibit space, the Orange County Convention Center plans to add another 400,000 to one million square feet by 2002, says Tom Ackert, executive director.

Will Orange County scale back its plans if WEC becomes a reality? "Expansion of our facility is justified. We intend to do it without regard to what they do down there [in Osceola County]," responds Ackert. But he does concede the WEC will have an effect. "If we add half a million square feet and they build two million, that may dampen future expansion of our convention center. We're not going to be silly and spend a bunch of money and create ourselves a problem. On the other hand, we're not going to sit back and wait for them, either."

Instead of competing, suggest some, the two centers should link efforts. McAvoy has recommended creation of a Central Florida Convention Authority, which would coordinate bookings and hotel room blocks. (His plan, he stresses, does not call for combining the CVBs.) Ackert says that the idea makes sense "if the authority has absolute control over bookings at both properties." Control is essential, he says, to ensure true cooperation and communication. "I've watched the United Nations for most of my 45 years," he quips. "Unless [the authority] has some teeth, it will be nothing more than a get-together."

Not only is WEC's size unusual, but, unlike Orange County and many other convention centers, it will be funded mostly with private money, with developers seeking only about $30 million in state funds, plus tax incentives. The development team includes Osceola Development L.P., a limited partnership between Robert L. Miller, a Florida real estate developer, and Nomura Asset Capital Corporation of New York; World Expo Center Corporation, run by Stanley Shenkman, owner of Toronto's International Centre; and Welbro Companies, Inc., a Florida developer.

In addition to the exhibition center, the proposed project includes a 120,000-square-foot, county-owned convention center; three hotels with 5,000 hotel rooms; parking areas for 20,000 cars; and a shopping mall and entertainment complex. Phase I of the project, which includes the exhibition facilities and a 2,000-room Hyatt Hotel, is slated for a mid-2000 opening, with groundbreaking expected this summer.

The proposal for Phase II includes an additional million square feet of exhibition space--which would bring the total exhibition space to an unprecedented three million square feet.

While the WEC project is far from finalized--developers must go through further negotiations with the county and permitting processes--it is moving along well, says Ken Shipley, Osceola County Commissioner. "It's definitely a viable project," he says.

Meeting Industry Lobbies on Capitol Hill Braving chill winds, 250 meeting planners, hoteliers, association executives, and convention bureau representatives descended on Capitol Hill March 5 for the fifth annual Meeting Industry Legislative Action Day (MILAD). Convened by Meeting Professionals International (MPI) the event highlighted the need for funding a national tourism office, preserving the tax break for business meals, and getting better deals from music licensing organizations. The American Hotel & Motel Association sponsored MILAD for the first time, replacing MPI's Potomac chapter.

Although attendance was down 20 percent from 311 in 1997, the turnout reflected representation from 35 out of 42 MPI U.S. chapters, compared to 33 last year. "We were delighted to have more people from more states visit with more congresspeople than ever before," said Edwin L. Griffin, Jr., CAE, MPI's executive vice president and CEO.

On a less positive note, the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA), which has backed MPI's annual lobbying day since 1995, took a different tack this year. Officially, PCMA was listed as one of 11 sponsors of MILAD, but unofficially PCMA "didn't promote it to its members," said Roy B. Evans, Jr., CAE, executive vice president and CEO. He described the issues as "weak" and irrelevant and said PCMA's role in the 1999 MILAD is uncertain.

MILAD's agenda raised almost the same issues as in prior years but there was a new urgency. Without congressionally approved funding for an international marketing plan, federal approval of the U.S. National Tourism Organization (USNTO) structure will expire October 11. USNTO's board outlined four ideas to finance the marketing plan, which will cost upwards of $20 million a year: an annual appropriation, a travel-related fee, a departure fee paid by international visitors at the airport, and finally, the use of interest earned on the Airport/Airways Trust Fund. However, none of the four ideas is acceptable to the Air Transport Association--and its support is crucial.

Bills to increase the 50 percent tax break on business meals and entertainment are pending in Congress, but there's new talk of a flat tax that would wipe out most business deductions.

Chronic battles over music licensing practices remain on MILAD's radar screen, even though the industry's agreement with Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) last May for a simplified contract and a licensing rate of five cents per attendee has diminished pressures for legislation, said Jim Clarke, vice president, government affairs at the American Society of Association Executives. Music licensing legislation submitted by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) would arbitrate disputes rather than subject them to the federal courts, among other provisions. At press time, the House was about to vote on the reform bill. And as Congress prepares to extend U.S. copyright laws, the House version of the legislation could be amended to stop music licensing organizations from charging twice for the same recorded music. The amendment, if adopted, would reflect a section in pending music licensing legislation and end the "vicarious liability" of convention sponsors to pay fees for copyrighted music played by trade show exhibitors.