by Alex Palmer | June 01, 2015

Keeping it Close
Close proximity -- very close -- is key for making this work. Hunden recommends to his clients that hotels be adjacent to the convention center if not actually connected. If the "demand generators" (his term for each attraction, hotel, and meeting venue) are placed just two to three blocks apart, the flow of people will slow to a trickle and the city will end up with "a bunch of dead zones."

Hunden points to cities like Chicago and Memphis as suffering from this situation. The distance between their convention centers and the wider downtown attractions forces planners to figure out how to transport attendees between the various components of an event, and that means "losing business to much easier, walkable environments that are in many cases cheaper too," according to Hunden.

He cites Nashville as a destination that has successfully brought its downtown demand generators in closer proximity. "They've moved the convention center closer to the action downtown, built the Omni headquarter hotel, and now you can fall out the convention center front door and have the arena and scores of attractions right in front of you," he says.

This has been the approach of the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center, located on the waterfront of Long Beach, CA, near retail and dining hot spots like Shoreline Village, and the Aquarium of the Pacific. The city has worked to integrate the center into the wider downtown, offering 400,000 square feet of meeting space, and making it easy for groups to move between the center and the many other Long Beach offerings.

"More cities are creating meeting attendee and visitor experiences around the concept of having a diverse mix of attractions within walking distance of the hotel and convention package. As this trend evolves, every city that improves its package raises the bar and average competitiveness overall," says Hunden. "Those that don't do that are losing conventions left and right if they don't have their hotel and convention center connected, or don't have enough things to do within easy walking distance."

Of course, it also means making the right investments at the right times -- knowing when greater impact can come from investing in an arena than a convention center expansion, for example. He sees Los Angeles as a model of this sort of smart downtown development. The Los Angeles Convention Center (LACC), recently acquired from the city by entertainment company AEG, which already owns the adjacent L.A. Live entertainment complex and Staples Center. The company has taken steps to improve the flow between these flagship venues, neighboring hotels, and nearby businesses.

"The convention center is really the lynchpin for meetings, trade shows, and exhibits and complements the dining, entertainment offerings of L.A. Live next door," says Darren Green, senior vice president of sales for Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board (LATCB). "It really combines everything -- but the convention center is where everything started."

Together, this entertainment district is turning downtown Los Angeles into something unlikely in this auto-oriented city: a pedestrian-friendly area.

"We see more activity in the street as people take advantage of our 300-plus days of sun, and encourage planners to take this into account and design outdoor events," says Green. He adds that the LA Metro, with a planned extension all the way to Santa Monica by early 2016, is "bringing more people downtown."

The integration of the convention center into downtown means the influx of visitors to the LACC is contributing more directly than ever to the local economy. This year alone, the 23 citywide events held at LACC are expected to draw more than 360,000 attendees (and 235,880 room nights) to Los Angeles.

Local businesses are doing their part to attract groups to their establishments. The LATCB recently relaunched its Show Us Your Badge program, allowing attendees to receive discounts and special offers at more than 20 downtown restaurants and nightlife spots to anyone flashing their convention badge.

But the benefits go both directions. After five years of running a deficit, the LACC is reporting profits of $3.3 million for the first year since it was turned over to the AEG division. In part, this is thanks to some tough business decisions made by the center's new owners -- cutting staff from 200 to 91 workers, hiring a contractor to manage the center's 5,400 parking spaces -- but it is also due to the changing role of the venue in downtown Los Angeles, as one part of an increasingly powerful economic engine.

Nor is this just a U.S. phenomenon. Since completing the SSE Hydro arena on the grounds of the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre, Glasgow has seen dining and nightlife options opening within walking distance.