Today’s convention centers serve as powerful economic engines. And with good reason. They possess the ability to infuse cities with new energy and revitalized spirit. Even in these challenging economic times, convention centers continue to be built, upgraded and revamped with one mission in mind: to boost business and tourism.
This is good news for meeting planners on the hunt for standout destinations that can execute a memorable experience and deliver on the details.
A Brave New World
Consider Houston, for example. Twenty-five years ago, Houston’s east side was a far cry from the gem it is today. In fact, it was rather desolate but, luckily, on the verge of greatness.
(George R. Brown Convention Center)
In a bid to stay competitive with the rest of the country, city leaders convinced voters to pass a bond issue to build a new $104.9-million convention center that would replace the obsolete Albert Thomas Convention Center.
George R. Brown’s company, Texas Eastern Corp., donated 11 acres of underutilized land to the cause, and development on the state-of-the-art facility began in 1985. On Sept. 26, 1987, in a grand opening ceremony, the George R. Brown Convention Center (GRB) was unveiled amidst Houston’s great oil bust and economic turmoil.
Houston residents had something to be excited about.
At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, then-Mayor Kathy Whitmire predicted Houston would become one of the nation’s premier convention destinations with the new facility. And the rest, as they say, is history.
To date, the GRB has welcomed an estimated 25 million guests to downtown Houston. The venue currently hosts more than 40 major conventions and 200 additional events annually. Perhaps most importantly, the convention center has helped spur significant development downtown.
"The GRB has provided consistent stimulation to the local economy every year since we opened in 1987," says Dawn Ullrich, president and CEO of Houston First Corporation, which manages the GRB. "We attract approximately one million visitors annually, and this influx has produced significant hotel occupancy tax revenue and direct consumer spending over the course of 25 years. Moreover, this kind of visitor foot traffic has resulted in the development of new hotels, sports facilities, office buildings, a residential tower and the 12-acre Discovery Green park across the street. I think it’s fair to say that the presence of the GRB played a big role in attracting them to our neighborhood."
For meeting planners, this means not only an exceptional venue option, but also a wealth of dining, entertainment and lodging opportunities for event attendees.
"Every year, there are new eateries, new bars, new hotels, more green space," says Jonathan Erwin, who coordinates the Texas-based Halloween and Party Expo, set to take place for the fifth year at the GRB.
"It’s an exciting place to be. It’s not an institutional bunker crowded into a gray business district; instead, it’s a cool-looking structure in a welcoming, modern, vibrant environment," Erwin says.
To that end, GRB management continually evaluates how to improve the convention center to keep pace with the event industry’s changing needs, and earlier this year, Houston First Corp. rolled out its ambitious GRB 2025 Master Plan, which showcases a roadmap for future development of the Convention District.
Part of that plan, if approved by the City Council, includes construction of a new 1,000-room hotel near GRB, with groundbreaking slated for 2014 and a targeted completion date of 2016. Plans call for an 1,800- car garage, as well.
With a proven track record, 1.2 million square feet of meeting space and an extremely busy 2013 ahead, GRB is a bright example of the long-term rewards that progressive thinking can reap.
Deep in the Heart
It was a truly defining day for San Antonio when first lady Lady Bird Johnson officially opened the world’s fair in 1968.
HemisFair ‘68 would draw international interest and solidify the Alamo City’s footing in the tourism and convention industry, a stronghold that continues to this day.
Built as a part of HemisFair ‘68, the original San Antonio Convention Center has since changed names, grown substantially, undergone multiple makeovers and has served as an important catalyst to the vibrant business scene along the banks of San Antonio’s picturesque River Walk.
(Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center)
Named for the late U.S. Congressman, the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center (HBG) hosts more than 300 events each year, with more than 750,000 convention delegates from around the world.
The center encompasses 1.3 million square feet of space, complete with four contiguous exhibit halls totaling more than 440,000 square feet, along with 192,000 square feet of meeting space, three ballrooms and the adjacent 2,400-seat Lila Cockrell Theatre, which was completely renovated in 2010.
And in mid-2012, San Antonio city officials announced major expansion plans for HBG that will increase the newer portion eastward to create contiguous exhibit halls, more flexible meeting and ballroom space and a modernized facility to meet the market’s current and future needs.
The HBG will remain in full operation throughout the $325-million expansion, which is estimated to be completed in mid-2016.
For meeting planners and event attendees alike, San Antonio and HBG provide a fresh and lively scene. Casandra Matej, executive director of the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau, says when event planners are in search of value, San Antonio delivers.
"San Antonio’s compact downtown meeting package provides great savings and convenience with the convention center, hotels, restaurants and attractions all located within walking distance via street level or the River Walk," says Matej.
She adds that more than 13,700 rooms are available downtown, with about 6,500 within walking distance of the convention center and 3,000 rooms within just one block.
"Anchoring the east side of downtown and on the banks of the River Walk, the center provides a constant flow of visitors into downtown and that has contributed to growth in our restaurants, attractions and amenities," says Matej. "As San Antonio continues to evolve, the upcoming expansion of the center is opening the door for the revitalized HemisFair Park and will again transform San Antonio’s downtown."
For the Waco-based American Football Coaches Association’s (AFCA) annual convention, Texas has produced some of the company’s greatest event turnouts. Roughly 8,000 coaches, wives, sponsors, exhibitors and guests attend the AFCA’s annual convention, which was held at HBG in 2002, 2007 and 2012, and will be held there again in 2016. Event attendees hail from the United States, Canada, Mexico and Japan, among other countries.
Janet Robertson, director of special events for AFCA, says having several large hotels next to the convention center is beneficial.
"The HBG is a great facility, always growing and improving, and the staff is tremendous to work with," says Robertson. "It is apparent the HBG and the hotels work very closely together and they have one goal in mind: total collaboration for 100 percent customer satisfaction."
Robertson says attendee feedback regarding San Antonio and HBG is overwhelmingly positive, with guests citing proximity to the River Walk, in particular.
Legends of the early Spanish colonial life in the Southwest, top-notch museums and attractions and a globally infused culinary landscape mix with a vast offering of accommodations, attentive support staff and logistical convenience to ensure a San Antonio event attendees won’t soon forget.
Not every meeting or event warrants a large-scale venue. The industry requires smaller, more intimate options as well, which also can economically impact a community and encourage newcomers to jump into the local business scene.
The west side of Forth Worth is already witnessing stirrings of development thanks to the new Cendera Center, which opened in May 2011. First a bowling alley, then a skating rink, later an ice rink-the building that would become the Cendera Center has a long history in the community.
So, perhaps it was not surprising when Brian Collins, a one-time hockey player at the facility in his younger years, decided to turn the building into a multipurpose community hotspot. As the founder and CEO of mortgage bank Cendera Funding, Collins chose to locate his company headquarters in the building, while also developing a 10,000-square-foot event space, several meeting rooms and a new lobby.
The building’s natural stone, steel and stucco exterior houses a warm and inviting interior punctuated by walnut millwork, porcelain tile and custom furniture, and of particular note, a sensational sound system by D.A.S. Audio.
Lori Henson, director of Fort Worth-based Kids Who Care, says Cendera is a prime location for her company’s events, large or small.
"They are fabulous to work with," says Henson. "The facility is classy, clean and so accommodating. Everyone who has attended our gala, and several small events that we have hosted at Cendera, always says the same thing. They had no idea how lovely it was until they came in to see the space."
As a Fort Worth native, Henson is excited by the economic growth she is seeing. "The west side had taken a downturn in the ‘90s," she explains. "I am so happy to see new restaurants and shopping. I think Cendera will be a major anchor in the future to the west side of Fort Worth."
The Road Ahead
While evolution is a given in the meeting industry, some things are not likely to fade.
"We think there will always be a need for face-to-face meetings, so we don’t see a reduction in the number of annual conventions," says Houston First’s Ullrich. "What we see happening is that this is a competitive market and definitely a buyers’ market. We need to make available all the amenities that major meetings need and want. This includes hotels within walking distance of the convention center, nearby attractions and the very latest in meeting place technology. These are areas we are addressing in our master plan."
As exemplified by the above success stories, the "if you build it, they will come" scenario can have far-reaching impacts well beyond a simple cement building. It can literally change the landscape of a community and the fabric of an industry ... for years and years to come.