Don't tell second-tier cities there's a young but persistent “bear” market at the door of the U.S. economy. Frankly, many of them don't have time to think about it. They're too busy preparing for conventions anticipated for years to come.

From past experience, Liz Jackson, vice president of Association Management Group, says, “When a recession is upon us, business does tend to flatten out a bit. But since the volume of meetings has grown so much in the past decade, there are still enough meetings to fill the new and expanded facilities. Nobody is worried about there not being any more meetings. Yes, technology helps society in many ways, but we know it doesn't change the fact people like meetings.”

There is no doubt that the strong economy of recent years has spurred communities across the nation to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up, renovate, and transform their cities into sparkling “renaissance” commerce centers.

“Some of the most notable changes have occurred in second-tier cities, particularly in their downtown areas,” explains Jackson. More often than not, expanded, refurbished, and new convention centers are playing a major role in these massive makeovers.

“Planners have far greater choices for their meetings,” Jackson says. “It's interesting to see the diversity offered by so many second-tier cities these days, and [to see] the latest looks they have acquired thanks to new restaurants, hotels, shops, attractions and, in some cases, renovated historical districts.”

These growing, transforming second-tiers also tend to offer competitive lodging and meal pricing, typically at rates that are much lower than those of first-tier cities. Of course, this is a real plus for religious meeting planners whose organizations may be more rate sensitive than others. (The best deals are found in the off-season or shoulder season.) Another bonus for religious planners: Most second-tiers offer a wide variety of complimentary or low-priced family attractions that are conveniently located, making it easier for attendees to take family members to meetings.

What follows are examples of some first-rate but second-tier cities boasting major “revitalization” projects and expansions of note that are still in the development stages. Clearly, the future still looks busy and bright for these destinations.

Portland Boosts Hospitality Power

Portland, Ore., is a city with slightly more than a half million people, but it is big enough to host meetings for as many as 25,000 attendees. A united civic push to boost the compact region's hospitality power is behind the recent decision to upgrade the 500,000-square-foot Oregon Convention Center.

When completed in April 2003, the $116 million project will increase convention and trade show capacity by 60 percent, along with bookings in Portland's 16,000 hotel rooms. The 250,000-square-foot expansion will add 105,000 square feet of exhibit space, a 35,000-square-foot ballroom, 30,000-square-feet of meeting space (50-plus breakout rooms), 35,000 square feet of lobby/function space, two levels of underground parking, and spectacular city skyline views.

Funded by the local hospitality/tourism industry (via lodging and car rental taxes), the project is part of a wider financing program that includes the further downtown expansion of the city's 300-block “Fareless Square” zone, which allows bus, light rail, trolley, and streetcar passengers to ride for free.

Late this year, a $55 million streetcar system will add links between downtown and various neighborhoods, and a new light-rail extension will connect downtown to the Portland International Airport (a 40-minute ride). Eight miles from the convention center, the airport, which provides 300 flights daily to 120 cities worldwide, is also expanding operations.

Cincinnati Looks Toward the River

Investments of more than $2.3 billion in new and future projects are transforming the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky riverfront. Recent area developments include a $400 million football stadium for the Cincinnati Bengals, the new Northern Kentucky Convention Center with its adjacent Marriott Hotel, and a world-class aquarium across the bridge from Cincinnati in Covington.

Still to come: two major waterfront parks (with hopes for a 2002 completion); a $330 million baseball stadium for the Cincinnati Reds (2003); an $80 million National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (2004); and a reconfigured highway system running into downtown Cincinnati.

But perhaps the best news for religious meeting planners is the expansion of the Dr. Albert B. Sabin Cincinnati Convention Center, the world-class exposition facility downtown near the Ohio River.

The $325 million expansion will increase the convention center's exhibit space from 162,000 square feet to 400,000 square feet, expand meeting room space from 84,000 square feet to 240,000 square feet, and overall expand the center from 551,750 square feet to 1.59 million square feet upon completion in 2005.

Cincinnati's “skywalk” pedestrian system connects the center to five major downtown hotels, department stores and shops, restaurants, parking, and entertainment. More than 3,000 first-class hotel rooms are within a three-block radius and/or walking distance, and the metro area offers 20,000 hotel rooms.

Planners seeking the newest meeting and event space options won't have to look any further than the football stadium, sporting plush club-level lounges; each is 20,000 square feet and holds up to 1,000 people.

Across the river and a few blocks south, the Northern Kentucky Convention Center (built in 1998) offers 50,000 square feet of exhibit space, a 22,800-square-foot ballroom, and 14,000 square feet of meeting space. A venue 35 miles farther south is the Kentucky Speedway, a recently opened, $130 million motor sports complex with 60,000 seats, plus facilities for other events.

The Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport — Delta's second-largest hub and COMAIR's largest — lies only 20 minutes from downtown. The $500 million in expansion projects during the 1990s and a schedule of 580 daily nonstop departures to 113 cities have turned it into one of the world's most modern, fastest-growing airports.

Meeting Planners Inspire Denver

After meeting with more than 70 national meeting planners in focus groups last fall, architects of the $268 million Colorado Convention Center expansion redesigned the project's preliminary floor plan. Construction will begin later this year and should be complete by early 2004. The expansion, which will double the structure's present dimensions, will make the convention center the sixth-largest west of the Mississippi and the 15th-largest in the United States. It will have 584,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space, 125,000 square feet of meeting space, 35,000-square-foot and 50,000-square-foot ballrooms, and a 5,000-fixed-seat auditorium.

The convention center will be connected to a new Hyatt, a $220 million, 35-story tower across the street. Also projected to open in early 2004, the hotel will offer 1,100 rooms and 85,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 30,000-square-foot ballroom. This project should bring downtown's lodging tally to 6,411 first-class rooms; total count in metro Denver is 36,000 rooms.

Denver's rapid population growth (up 23 percent since 1990) is fueling the region's plethora of innovative projects sure to add value to convention events. Later this year, mega-nightclub Jillian's becomes part of the $100 million, two-square-block Denver Pavilions, a huge entertainment/shopping sector. More 2001 fun: the opening of ESPN Zone, a 23,000-square-foot entertainment complex/restaurant with an 8,600-square-foot sports arena.

Next year, a $360 million, multi-use football stadium, Invesco Field at Mile High, will debut, offering planners 85,000 seats for events. A House of Blues restaurant with a 1,000-person concert hall will come to town, joining 90 restaurants in the LoDo historic district. And the Butterfly Pavilion & Insect Center becomes the world's largest attraction of its kind with a new $15 million, all-glass pavilion filled with 3,000 butterflies.

In 2003, The Denver Museum of Nature and Science will open its $40 million exhibition space, featuring a digital planetarium and space flight simulations. The Denver Art Museum has plans to double its size with a new $64 million building the following year.

Grand Rapids' Growing Grand Center

Grand Rapids — Michigan's second-largest city — is in the midst of a renaissance, as evidenced by the $200 million recently spent on creating and renovating cultural, recreational, and sports facilities. These include the Van Andel Museum Center, Grand Rapids Children's Museum, Gerald R. Ford Museum, and new sections in the John Ball Zoological Garden. They join an art museum and an aquarium, plus an array of shopping, nightlife, and restaurant options.

Construction has begun on the $220 million expansion of the multi-purpose Grand Center, the king of meeting/convention facilities in Grand Rapids. Scheduled for December 2004 completion, the expanded complex will put a 1 million-square-foot footprint on a 13-acre riverfront site. Planned spaces include a 160,000-square-foot, column-free exhibit hall (the size of three football fields side-by-side); a 40,000-square-foot ballroom with seating for 4,000; and a 35,000-square-foot, subdividable meeting space.

The expansion also links Grand Center to Van Andel Arena, a new 12,000-seat sports/entertainment facility that is connected to the 682-room Amway Grand Plaza Hotel and the 214-room Courtyard by Marriott. (These two facilities help to make up the 6,200-room inventory in the metro area.)

About five minutes from downtown is the newly remodeled DeltaPlex Entertainment and Expo Center, offering 102,000 square feet and seating for up to 7,000 in two exhibition halls and an arena.

A unique venue in the city is the Frederick Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, a tropical conservatory whose recent expansion added 65,000 square feet. Its Grand Room and Atrium seats 850 (660 for dinner) while its planned outdoor amphitheater will seat 1,000.

Palm Beach Heats Up for Group Business

Although Palm Beach County's year-round population is just 1 million, “Florida's Golf Capital” attracts thousands of visitors each year.

What is behind the county's allure? Well, partly it is the 2,000 restaurants, 40 museums, golf courses, 47 miles of beaches, and the gorgeous weather — plus the fact that Palm Beach has the most five-star, five-diamond resorts in the United States. About 200 hotels offer 15,000 guest rooms (3,000 are in or near downtown). Moreover, when two additional downtown hotels debut in 2002 or 2003, they will add 600 rooms to the region's inventory.

Amazingly, this meeting mecca has hummed along for many years without a convention center. But that is about to change. After 10 years of study, a $74 million, 300,000-square-foot convention center soon will be rising in downtown West Palm Beach, only three miles from Palm Beach International Airport. Scheduled to open May 2003, the Palm Beach County Convention Center will feature a 100,000 square-foot exhibit hall, a 25,000 square-foot ballroom, and breakout space encompassing some 23,000 square feet. The long-anticipated facility is the final piece of a downtown transformation that has been going on for five years.

The convention center will be adjacent to the most recent development of note, the 72-acre Palladium at CityPlace, which opened in October 2000. This 500,000-square-foot retail/entertainment district creates a vibrant streetscape with covered walkways, plazas, fountains, outdoor terraces, and other enticements for meeting attendees who want something to see on breaks.

Hotel meeting space abounds in the area as well. Recently upgraded facilities include the Ritz-Carlton, Palm Beach, which has a new $20 million spa; the Breakers Hotel, which added 100 rooms and a new oceanfront conference facility (for a total of 45,000 square feet); and the Boca Raton Hotel Resort & Club, the largest area facility for corporate meetings, which added 150 rooms, a greatly expanded spa, and more restaurants.

And over at the South Florida Fairgrounds Expo Center in West Palm Beach, site of many consumer trade shows and community events, a $13 million expansion is well under way. The project, scheduled for completion by the end of the year, will increase the center's size from 50,000 to 118,000 square feet.