by Alex Palmer | June 01, 2015
Fort Wayne, IN, has enjoyed a steady influx of visitors since the city expanded its Grand Wayne Convention Center in 2005. The extension has not only made the venue a more desirable destination for outside meeting planners looking for an affordable option that can accommodate a sizable group, but has helped stoke development in the area -- e.g., the building of new retail, restaurants, and riverfront entertainment options -- which has helped lure locals to downtown in the process.

To keep this momentum going, talk began a few years ago about expanding the convention center even further. The city reached out to Hunden Strategic Partners (HSP), a Chicago-based real estate consultancy that analyzes whether such large-scale building projects make sense, taking into account the flow of people, available services and amenities, market conditions, and competition.

But HSP came back with a surprising response: not so fast. "We told them that more space won't necessarily help them unless there is something else that moves the needle," says Rob Hunden, owner of HSP.

Instead, the consultants recommended that the city invest in a proposed arena adjacent to the convention center, which would bring more people (and especially more locals) into downtown during the weekends and evenings, when business from the center would be quieter.

"Having that arena/convention center package together starts to bring consistent, 12-months-a-year activity to downtown," says Hunden. "All these things right in the same block turn the tide for the local community to say, 'We want to live downtown, work downtown, and move our company downtown.'"

Hunden characterizes a city that creates this synergy between visiting meeting groups and locals, merchants and developers, as an engine firing on all cylinders, driving steady, accelerating long-term growth.

It's an outlook that is being adopted by cities with increasing frequency. Convention centers and the meeting groups they attract are playing a vital role in the development and, in many cases, the rebirth of downtown areas. But as the Fort Wayne example shows, they are most effective when seen as one piece of a larger puzzle. In return, meeting planners are finding great benefits in convention facilities that are integrated with the greater downtown, which allow planners and attendees to take advantage of all the city has to offer.

Piece of a Larger Puzzle 
Increasingly, convention centers are being expanded, particularly in downtown areas, with the goal of making them not isolated destinations in themselves, but as one more attraction among many. Texas, for example, demonstrates how cities are creating symbiotic "convention districts."

San Antonio is in the midst of the $325-million expansion of its Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center from 1.3 million square feet to 1.65 million square feet -- the largest capital project in the city's history -- slated for completion in 2016. But while it is adding major meeting space, the city is also ensuring that the center is adding to the surrounding downtown area, creating outdoor meeting space adjacent to the famous River Walk and developing the neighboring Hemisfair Park. The park's additions, set to debut in 2018, will place more than eight football fields' worth of green space into downtown San Antonio, inaugurating a central gathering place open to public and private events alike.

Meanwhile, Houston has developed the area surrounding its George R. Brown Convention Center into a vibrant multi-use Convention District. Last fall, it completed its Green Street park area surrounded by retail, dining, and entertainment shops that draw locals and visitors alike. A new 1,000-room Marriott Marquis is expected to join the hotel inventory in 2016.

"It's a whole campus environment where a group can put up banners and association logos," says John Solis, vice president of sales for the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau. "It's really opening things up and turning downtown into something like a resort destination."

As Austin's reputation as a top-notch meeting city has grown, so has the hotel inventory adjacent to the Austin Convention Center (ACC), located near the waterfront of Lady Bird Lake. This past February saw the opening of the JW Marriott Austin next to the convention center, adding another 1,000 guest rooms (and becoming the city's largest hotel). Three additional properties are currently under construction in the downtown area, adding more than 800 rooms in the next couple years.

"Over the last few years we've seen that the market needs more rooms," says Joe Pagone, general manager of the Hotel Van Zandt, which will open in July with 319 guest rooms and 12,000 square feet of meeting space one block from the ACC. It sits in the city's historic Rainey Street district, once one of Austin's less attractive neighborhoods. But thanks to the ingenuity of Austin natives, who converted the area's dilapidated bungalow homes into hip restaurants and shops, the area is now one of the hottest in the city. "Everyone wants to hold their event on Rainey Street now," adds Pagone.

"Everything is really walkable and safe," adds Cindy Y. Lo, president and owner of Austin-based DMC Red Velvet Events, which often partners with the convention center to provide visiting groups with "true local references for best places to eat and best venues for off-site parties." Lo says she "loves that we can easily mix water and land activities for our groups that are willing to be a bit more adventurous."

Lo gives the example of a recent event for an international group of 1,000 attendees meeting at the ACC. She helped the group arrange a wide range of activities, including a tour of Austin by kayak, a shopping excursion, and an exploration of the city's history museums.

"A downtown location makes it easier and less costly [for attendees to enjoy the city], as it can reduce the requirements for transportation that so often accompanies off-site activities," says Geoff Donaghy, president of the International Association of Convention Centres (AIPC), as well as CEO of International Convention Centre Sydney and director of convention centers for AEG Ogden.

This marks a major shift from a couple decades ago, when the belief was that convention centers could create this kind of energy and economic boost within their own walls. "The realization has been clear that convention centers are episodic -- they don't have people coming in and out all the time," says HSP's Hunden. "They are one piece of the puzzle that has to be integrated with the other pieces."

Hunden points to Indianapolis, which he worked with as the city was devising its convention package in the 1990s, helping pioneer this multi-pronged approach. Thanks to the city's success in attracting groups, it continues to make investments to ensure the area continues to "fire on all cylinders." The city spent $275 million on a vast expansion of the convention center in 2011 along with the construction of the 1,005-room JW Marriott headquarter hotel. More recently an investment of $12 million redeveloped Georgia Street, which runs alongside the center. It's now a pedestrian-friendly European-style promenade with outdoor event space, food trucks, a bike share program, and easy access to a wide range of shopping, hotel, and dining venues.