Boston Eyes Top Convention City Status With June's BCEC Debut

Boston, breathing easier because its massive "Big Dig" urban renewal project is more than 90 percent complete, relieving visitors of transportation woes and construction dust, is looking forward to another milestone: the completion next month of the new Boston Convention & Exhibition Center.

"The new convention center opens up a sector for us where we were not a serious player before," said Pat Moscaritolo, president of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. "I think Boston will now be considered among the top five convention cities."

The 516,000-square-foot BCEC features 90-foot ceilings, 52 back loading docks (several featuring drive-in access for tractor-trailers), 84 meeting rooms and a 40,020-square-foot ballroom, the largest in New England.

"We'll now be able to host four shows simultaneously, with separate registration and drop-off areas," said Cynthia Hill, vice president of sales for the Boston Convention Marketing Center, which sells the BCEC.

In July alone, BCEC will host the MacWorld computer show, a corporate meeting of big software supplier SAP, and the Democratic National Convention's 15,000-attendee media opening party (the convention itself will be at Boston's Fleet Center sports venue).

There are 40 definite events, eight contracts pending and 75 tentative events scheduled through 2010.

"We've been waiting for this new building for a while, and we're very excited about its debut," said Brian Perkins, executive vice president of trade show management company Diversified Business Communications, based in Portland, Maine, who will move his International Boston Seafood Show from Boston's existing Hines Convention Center across town to the BCEC next March.

Perkins, who sat on the BCEC's design advisory committee, had long struggled with the space constraints of the Hines, designed to hold 95,000 square feet of exhibits; somehow, the seafood show managed to squeeze in 130,000 square feet this March.

Other major shows headed to the BCEC include Microsoft's annual TechEd convention in June 2006 with more than 10,000 attendees, and the National Association of Letter Carriers, coming July 2008 with more than 9,000 attendees.

Perkins and others are mindful that in its location near the waterfront in South Boston, the BCEC sits in a relatively undeveloped area. The only hotel currently nearby is the Seaport, with 426 rooms. Boston's World Trade Center complex is three blocks away on the water, but the Financial District and Back Bay are about a mile away, across a bridge.

"But as shows come in, that area will develop," Perkins said. "For the short term, we're going to take shuttle buses, the same way conventions do with the Javits Center and McCormick Place. It's not unusual."

And Boston is developing what convention center counterparts in New York and Chicago are not: an attached headquarters hotel.

Groundbreaking of the $203 million Westin Convention Headquarters hotel is set for May 27. The first 790 rooms will come online in 2006, with developers holding an option to build an additional 330 rooms within 10 years.

The BCEC sits directly across Boston Harbor from Logan International Airport. Ferry service from the airport side currently serves the World Trade Center and the cruise ship port, and could serve the BCEC, observers said.

While the broad economic impact of the BCEC is widely heralded, the opening of the center will strain the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority's purse. The center's estimated annual expenses of $12.5 million will gobble up 35 percent of the authority's $37.4 million budget. Meanwhile, the 15 events on the books the first year will generate only $3.5 million in direct revenue for the center, according to budget discussions revealed during an April board meeting.

In other Boston news, the grande dame Fairmont Copley Plaza is undergoing a $34 million renovation that will upgrade the 90-year-old facility's 383 guestrooms and meeting space.

At the Four Seasons Hotel Boston, the Presidential Suite got a $2 million renovation. And new builds include the Onyx Hotel, opening this month on Portland Street with 112 rooms; the Jury's Boston Hotel, in Back Bay, debuting in June with 220 rooms; and the 88-room Bulfinch Clarion, opening near the Fleet Center in June or July.

Contact Christopher Hosford at [email protected]