Convening With Authority

The effects of Sept. 11 on tourism and the slowdown in the economy certainly have taken their toll on the convention industry. However, industry personnel are starting to see some turnaround. "Over the last decade, there was a tremendous amount of convention center activity, with 20 or more centers in the pipeline at one time," says Michael Ezell, principal at Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback and...

By Kathryn M. Rospond, Contributing Editor January 1, 2004

The effects of Sept. 11 on tourism and the slowdown in the economy certainly have taken their toll on the convention industry. However, industry personnel are starting to see some turnaround.

“Over the last decade, there was a tremendous amount of convention center activity, with 20 or more centers in the pipeline at one time,” says Michael Ezell, principal at Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback and Assocs. (TVS), Atlanta. “We still see projects of every size, but it’s just not what it was a few years ago.”

Still, the firm that’s designed McCormick Place’s South expansion and Milwaukee’s Midwest Express Center is cautiously optimistic. “This last year was slow except for carryover projects, but we hope to see many more in 2004 and 2005 than in 2003,” he says.

“Overall the industry is coming back, but slowly,” agrees Don Grinberg, principal architect and director of convention center architecture for HNTB Architecture in Boston, the architect of record on Boston’s new convention center above and the recent design-build expansion to San Diego’s convention facility. “The days of the mega-projects are fewer, and certainly a number of projects are stalled. Yet, once governments start seeing tax receipts being stable or going up, we’ll see more projects happening and moving forward. There’s a great emphasis to improve competitiveness.”

One project that certainly has seen its share of stalling is the expansion to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on Manhattan’s West Side. According to the New York Times , the center’s operating corporation and the hotel industry have been working for nearly a decade to double the size of the facility. Funding for the project, which is estimated at $1.5 billion, as well the scope of expansion is still in the air, however. Another factor delaying expansion plans is the $800 million proposal to build a modern stadium for the New York Jets in the same area, a factor that could potentially delay the Javits project until 2013.

Still, the outlook for convention attendance is hopeful. “Things will look good,” says David R. Causton, acting general manager of McCormick Place in Chicago. “Like everyone else, we’ve seen some slowdown based on the economy … more so than Sept. 11. But, we’re seeing increases in attendance, and that’s the first indicator of turnaround. That’s followed by a growth of exhibit space.”

Indeed, McCormick Place is in the midst of a massive expansion, and a few other mega projects are coming to fruition, such as Washington, D.C.’s new convention center and Boston’s new facility. And as Grinberg notes, these new structures are notably different from their predecessors. Once characterized as sprawling behemoths relegated to the outskirts of cities and areas earmarked for urban redevelopment, convention centers today are undergoing major transformations in design and concept.

And not only are a greater number of cities encouraging the development of convention centers in the heart of their downtowns, they’re demanding design teams step up and create facilities that complement surrounding structures. “The industry can’t just treat them as ‘barns anymore,” says Ezell. “As civic buildings, they need to be better-built, higher-caliber pieces of architecture than what has been done traditionally. Today, they’re a huge design opportunity.”

In planning the new D.C. convention center, for example, representatives from TVS and HNTB worked closely with civic groups to maintain neighborhood continuity, including placing one story of the facility below grade to meet a 110-ft. height restriction and allowing two city streets to literally run through the complex.

San Francisco’s Moscone Center broke ground literally and figuratively in the 1980s and early ’90s by creating largely underground facilities. The roofs of the North and South buildings today are home to gardens, fountains, parks, a waterfall, the Center for the Arts, a children’s museum, a carousel, a day-care facility, a bowling alley and a skating rink. The center’s civic-minded attitude continues with the new Moscone West, which opened in June 2003 and will be the first public building in the city to house a solar electric system on its roof. Together, the system and energy-saving measures undertaken by the convention center will provide and save enough power to generate electricity for 1,000 homes.

The owner of the new Pittsburgh Convention Center, the Sports and Exhibition Authority of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, kept the big picture in mind when approving design elements for its landmark building—the first LEED-certified facility of its kind (see “A River Runs Through It,” p. 42). Features include windows and skylights in the exhibit hall that help conserve energy, a natural ventilation system and the use of recycled water. “Some of the things we did because we thought it was the right thing to do,” says Thomas Kennedy, project executive for SEA. “Some might not save us much money, if any, but we still thought they were the right thing to do.”

More than just a hall

Along the same lines another trend is to make convention centers more user-friendly and comfortable, and in many cases that means refocusing use of the facilities, as a greater amount of space is being dedicated to ballrooms and meeting rooms. “Over the last decade, the ballroom has become the most requested space in a facility,” TVS’ Ezell says. “It used to be that 20,000 sq. ft. was a big ballroom. Today, you’re seeing 40,000 to 50,000 sq. ft., even 100,000 sq. ft.”

Pittsburgh’s 33,000-sq.-ft. ballroom makes it the city’s largest—twice as big as the next biggest ballroom in the city, according to Kennedy.

Inclusion of a 40,000-sq.-ft. ballroom in the improvement of Kansas City’s Bartle Hall is critical to improving that facility’s competitiveness, Grinberg says. McCormick Place plans to include a 100,000-sq.-ft. ballroom that is divisible into five separate spaces as part of its new McCormick West facility.

Meeting rooms with flexibility in size and formation also are critical. In addition to its mega-ballroom, McCormick West will include an additional 150,000 sq. ft. of dedicated meeting rooms. The new Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, scheduled to open in June 2004, will feature 160,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, 86 meeting rooms lining both sides of the exhibit hall’s upper level and a 41,000-sq.-ft. ballroom. Greater attention is also being paid to finish details.

“There’s a stronger and stronger intent toward more conference-friendly meeting space,” adds Scott Sickeler, a principal at TVS. “We use windows when we can, better lighting, more comfortable chairs. Nobody wants to spend all day in a stackable chair.”

Wired for success

Being competitive in today’s market also means having the technological infrastructure and electrical capacity to handle an increased number of computers, broadband Internet connections, wireless infrastructure and teleconferencing systems. And that doesn’t come with a small price tag. At the Washington Convention Center, for example, $4.25 million was earmarked for the facility’s technology systems. Boston’s facility has a $2.3 million technology budget, which will cover the cost of high-speed wireless Internet access and a software system that automatically configures laptops to work with the building’s network. And in Philadelphia, officials with the Pennsylvania Convention Center have spent $1.36 million on high-speed Internet and wireless upgrades in addition to its initial $2 million expenditure on technology infrastructure; the facility’s next upgrade is a $450,000 voice-over-Internet telephone system. “You’re probably not going to build a facility in the future that has as many public pay phones as we did in the past,” says McCormick Place’s Causton. “That’s a big change from 15 years ago.”

Behind the scenes

Several other trends are helping to distinguish competing convention centers. One is features that help facilitate the move in/out process. McCormick Place, for example, has a truck marshalling yard with a private roadway and dedicated crate storage. Boston similarly has a ring road with 52 covered truck bays hidden below public areas. And in Pittsburgh, the center was designed with 10,000 sq. ft. per loading dock, a separate loading facility for food service and a separate set of access corridors to all meeting rooms, the exhibit hall and public spaces—all now standard features. “It’s all very neatly done,” Kennedy says.

Transportation amenities are another advantage. Boston, for example, is introducing express transportation service via dedicated bus lines and underground tunnels. McCormick Place West will have a central arrival/departure center for easy cab and bus access, which arrive underneath the exhibit hall on a street closed specifically for this purpose.

Last, but not least, are flexible registration areas. The key is having multiple registration spaces on several levels that can be divided for multiple uses. Registration areas are also coming equipped with data, audio/visual and sound systems for prefunction events.

“The concept of registration has changed,” Causton says. “It’s no longer simply a row of desks with headers where you get your badge. Associations have bookstores with gifts and tapes of sessions to purchase, and we need to provide them with the functional space to do so,” says the architect.

He adds groups also differ on where they want registration located. “In the end, it’s about providing maximum flexibility,” says Causton.

A changed process

Finally, the other most significant change in this new era of convention centers is the way in which projects are awarded. San Diego’s Convention Center, for example, generated headlines over the last few years for having its expansion be a city-initiated, modified design-build project to comply with city procurement initiatives. The delivery method was selected to help ownership avoid some of the litigation that plagued the original construction process. Ironically, a lawsuit still arose, but regarding civic legal issues not constructions conflicts.

Firms also may see a greater call for design competitions, as in the case of the Pittsburgh Convention Center and hotel. For example, SEA established certain design guidelines, such as the way the center must operate and the ratio of loading docks to exhibit space; it also relied on focus groups to help determine the importance of center amenities, such as meeting rooms. Ultimately, it relied on creative genius. “We really wanted a building that makes a statement…something that would make people realize that Pittsburgh is a pleasant surprise,” says SEA’s Kennedy.

In the end, successful convention center designers must be like their clients and rapidly adapt to aesthetic and technological changes that are transforming this tough market.

Hotels on the Horizon

A bright spot in the convention center outlook is a greater need for on-site hotels—a component many cities feel is essential for the success of their facilities. As a result, a growing number of cities are willing to fund parts of projects, such as parking garages, or to offer tax incentives, to see such project developed.

“In the past, many cities that were entertaining the idea of a convention center proceeded with only a loose commitment to additional hotel rooms,” says Michael Ezell, principal at Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback and Assocs., Atlanta. “Today, convention centers are seriously tied to the number of hotel rooms to come on line. And, there’s a lot of creative dialogue going on between the public and private sectors to make these projects happen.”

The new Boston Convention and Exhibit Center, for example, will have an attached headquarters hotel, whose completion by a private developer is scheduled for after the new center opens this summer. Another project greatly anticipated is the 500- to 600-room hotel tied to the new Pittsburgh Convention Center because of the owner’s commitment to creating a “green” facility. “Right now, our biggest issue is finding public participation in the project,” says Thomas Kennedy, project executive with the Sports and Exhibition Authority of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. “We’ll do it [build the hotel] as soon as we can, but we have to find the right source for the subsidy—and that’s being debated at the state level. Yet, the need for a hotel is recognized. We just need to get the stars in line here.”

While these hotels are closely tied to their convention centers, project developers also are taking great steps to have them function as stand-alone facilities. For example, each generally has its own separate ballroom and meeting rooms. And if they can afford to do so, luxury items such as spas and fitness centers are the first amenities brought in, says TVS Principal Scott Sickeler.