Constructive Criticism

Go big or go home. That is what John Sibiliano, executive director at the Wildwoods Convention Center in New Jersey, was thinking as he addressed his colleagues to discuss whether or not Wildwoods was going to remain in the meetings business. Thirty-two years after its opening, the Wildwoods Convention Center was still basically an 18,000-square-foot box with a capacity of 2,500 -- not nearly large enough to accommodate the 6,000-plus attendees of the New Jersey State Firemen's Association or the 4,000 members of the New Jersey State Elks. If Wildwoods was going to remain a significant player in the meetings industry, the convention center was going to need a major facelift -- one that would make the facility big enough to house the conventions they had already booked while also able to accommodate larger functions they previously had to turn down.

In California, similar deliberation was going on to determine if the San Diego Convention Center (SDCC) needed to undergo an expansion in order to keep up with the demand for larger shows. "We determined there were a number of shows that were going to outgrow us, and some we would have liked to have had that we were too small for," says Kevin Kamenzind, vp sales and marketing, citywide conventions for the SDCC.

The decision to expand both facilities was largely influenced by the diverse needs of several associations, and the need to host multiple shows simultaneously. "The bottom line was that when our convention center was full, we still had a demand for other shows to fill our hotel rooms," says Kamenzind. The expansion to the SDCC will give the facility another ballroom, and more meeting rooms, allowing the center to accommodate both small and large groups. More than the result of a need to keep existing shows, Kamenzind describes the expansion as "a proactive attempt to generate more new and repeat business."

The Planner as Architect

While planners have always known their business is important to a destination, what they may not realize is just how far a facility will go to gain their patronage. "We're the paycheck," says Karen Malone, director of meetings for the Chicago-based Healthcare Information. "They listen to us very closely." Virtually no convention center embarks on an expansion without forming an advisory panel of meeting planners to consult on the layout and design of a new or renovated facility.

Before hiring the contractors, getting the necessary funding, or breaking ground, facilities are consulting meeting planners more and more to find out how an expanding facility can be tailored to groups' specific needs. If a new center is going to be constructed, the management wants to know that the layout and design are going to be suitable to their clients. These advisory boards often include both current and potential clients, who meet (at the convention center's expense) to discuss the layout of the facility. Joe C. Boyd, spokesman for the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, says his building consulted an advisory group of 34 of the center's clients before going ahead with for the Phase V expansion of the OCCC. Boyd sees the panel as essential to the building's construction: "The feedback you receive from a board of 34 planners from diverse organizations gives you a good snapshot of what the finished facility should be."

This "snapshot" is not always about adding bigger spaces to a facility, but about adding space that will meet a variety of needs. By choosing a board of advisors made up of previous or potential clientele of the facility, directors receive information about the center's layout that is absolutely critical. The planners can look at a facility and say what falls short of their needs, thereby allowing the center to make the necessary modifications.

"It's not just about adding space; it's about adding space in the right way," says Boyd. General sessions, for example, usually have to be done in an exhibit hall, which has to be turned into a general session hall, which is a challenge acoustically. Many facilities will install draping and carpeting to create a space that will stop the noise from bouncing. But that is all fairly expensive for the meeting planner. "In the design process of our expansion, the planner advisory board suggested that we build two general session areas that can be multipurpose," says Boyd. "These areas can be subdivided -- walled off from the rest of the exhibit hall for general sessions yet still be opened up and used as exhibit space when needed. When they are walled off you can have a true general session. That all came from our advisory board."

The Planner as Lobbyist

While a planner's feedback is an essential part of the building process, this does not always mean a destination will have the necessary funds to complete the expansion. In these instances it is not unusual for planners to play a major role in the lobbying process of local governments to acquire the public funds necessary for the project.

For the Wildwoods Convention Center, the money needed to expand the facility had to be obtained through legislation, and it was the NJSFA that went to the legislators to get the bill passed to fund the facility. The NJSFA, based in East Orange, has been holding its annual convention in Wildwood for 28 years. In that time the group had grown to 7,000 attendees -- the original Wildwood facility could accommodate less than half of that number. "We had a drastic need for more space," says Frank Bocchino, president of the NJSFA. "We met several times with the management of Wildwood and told them what our needs were. They did a fine job of incorporating our needs into the plan for a new convention center but they had some difficulty raising the money because it had to be done through the legislative process."

Because the convention center had done so much to incorporate the needs of the Firemen's Association into its expansion, the group went to bat for the facility. Bocchino and his association testified at municipal budget hearings and met privately with legislators to plead the case for a new convention center. "Our membership played a significant role in helping the destination get the funding," he says. "We lobbied the legislators, telling them how drastically we needed this new convention center."

The Bottom Line

What does this mean for meeting planners and trend destinations? Planners can expect that their needs will be met more often when they voice their opinions about a facility's accommodations, whether on an advisory board, site visit, or post-conference evaluation. Richard Enuanes, director of conference and facilities management at the Washington D.C.-based National Educational Association (NEA), says, "There were times when a center has asked us to look and tell them where they fell short of our needs, and when we did they made the necessary modifications."

Doing so is just good business practice on the part of a destination. In return, the convention centers can expect an increase in the number of shows they receive, both from new and repeat clients. Enuanes says that the decision to expand the SDCC was a major factor in the NEA's destination choice: "The expansion definitely played a role in getting us to use the San Diego Convention Center," he says. "We could not have done our general session in an unexpanded facility."

The NEA's event has a large general session, which requires a venue of about 12,000 square feet. If there are a lot of columns in the room it makes it difficult for the group to create an effective session. "We looked at the city before the expansion and the hotel package worked but the center package didn't," says Enuanes. "We told them what our needs were and when they expanded, they configured one of the halls so it could accommodate a very large general session."

By influencing the facilities to expand, planners are ensuring that those expansions will subsequently increase business. With more and more convention centers looking to the meeting planner to take a proactive role in the layout of an expansion, the result is a facility that can better accommodate a planner's needs -- a win-win situation for everyone involved. "Consulting with planners was a key part of the SDCC expansion strategy," says Enuanes. "When we saw the floor plan for the expanded center we knew it would work. We had a site visit and we indicated that if an expansion were to go through, it would make San Diego a real possibility for us."