Convention Centers: From Spare to Spectacular

Convention centers are all about space: raw space designed to be filled. "The beauty about convention centers is that they're truly set up for large-scale meetings, and they're easy to transform," says Camille Hill, owner of Scottsdale, AZ-based event production firm, Merestone Productions. "They've got giant, hard-core space so you can do what you want to do." Indeed, as the following events demonstrate, a little work (and imagination) can transform convention halls into nearly anything, including sports fields, concert halls, and even time machines of sorts.

Open House

To celebrate the opening of Cincinnati's Duke Energy Center after an expansion, renovation, and reconfiguration, the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau kicked off the evening by joining the two ends of an oversized plug to symbolize the "powering up" of the center.

Then, city officials threw open the door of the center and invited the general public to come to the center, enjoy live music, sample food and drink, and explore the new facility—free of charge. A diverse musical lineup was assembled to reflect the variety of types and sizes of groups and events the center can accommodate, and featured performers ranging from local musicians to the nationally known band Rusted Root.

More than 3,000 free tickets were distributed ahead of time, and the overflow crowd enjoyed the music via live simulcast in the Grand Exhibition Hall.

A Home Run

For five days in April, the 16th annual Major League Baseball (MLB) All-Star FanFest took nearly 400,000 square feet of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh and transformed it into an enormous, interactive baseball theme park. It included a life-sized baseball diamond where players and managers made appearances, life-sized video batting and pitching cages, the world's largest baseball (12 feet tall), and an exhibit on loan from the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum. Attendees participated in youth skills clinics taught by current and former players, baseball trivia challenges, and a steal-home challenge, in which fans competed against each other in the 90-foot race from third base to home plate.

The largest baseball fan event in the nation, the MLB All-Star FanFest drew more than 106,000 people, including Alex Rodriguez and Cal Ripken.

The Philadelphia Sound

For the closing-night event of its 50th Anniversary annual meeting, held in Philadelphia, the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) had very little time to convert the center space from exhibition hall to concert hall. In six hours, PCMA tore down the PCMA Plaza, where the final session took place. The 35,000-square-foot Grand Hall was transformed into a celebratory venue for Five Decades of Music, which was sponsored by the Pennsylvania Convention Center and Aramark. Under a disco ball and strobe lighting, the Village People, an Austin Powers impersonator, break-dancers, and go-go dancers all entertained the crowd of 3,000, who could wander freely among decade-themed stations, complete with era-appropriate food and drinks. Prefunction space hosted Dittie's Diner (named for the convention center's chief operating officer), which featured fifties-era food and jitterbugging bobby-sockers.

Frankly My Dear . . .

Sherman Oaks, CA-based event planning firm Extraordinary Events collaborated with Mt. Pleasant, SC-based event production company Planning the Globe to produce an awards show gala for 800 attendees as part of a two-day incentive event for a corporate client at Georgia's Savannah International Trade & Convention Center. The client wanted the look and feel of a ball in the Old South, so the tables were covered in floor-length linens of pewter lamour (to complement the Sterling Awards theme) and centered with arrangements of white roses, white spray orchids, and trailing ivy. Each table was further enhanced by unique, custom-designed Austrian crystal chandeliers with crystal trails that hung 12 to 22 feet in length from the 36-foot ceiling. Multicolored, moving intelligent lighting constantly swept the room and refracted through the hanging crystal.

A Fine Affair

Just before the 2005 MPI World Education Congress in Miami, the Palm Beach County CVB's pre-conference familiarization tour culminated at the county's convention center with a gala event entitled "The Taste of Palm Beach County." The event flaunted all that Palm Beach County is known for: Equestrian hunters and polo ponies greeted arriving attendees; interactive croquet, golf, and beach games offered entertainment; a master sculptor created castles out of sand; and professional musicians and singers from the Palm Beach Opera serenaded guests as they sipped champagne.

Upstairs, an array of local restaurants offered signature dish tastings and CVB president "Mac" McLaughlin officially welcomed everyone from the deck of a yacht inside one of the exhibition halls. Another room created an authentic "cabaret" experience, complete with a pianist and an intimate nightclub feel.


Events by the Book

Wiley Publishing has a comprehensive collection of how-to books in its Event Management Series. Here are three of the best offerings in the series. These books are all available on and can also be purchased directly from Wiley at

Event Entertainment and Production (2004), by Mark Sonder, MM, CSEP
From assessing the client's need for entertainment at an event to hiring the talent, to the nuts-and-bolts production of the entertainment, this book provides event planners with the tools they need to efficiently produce and manage the entertainment aspect of any event.

Event Marketing: How to Successfully Promote Events, Festivals, Conventions, and Expositions, (2002), by Leonard H. Hoyle
This book explores topics such as electronic marketing strategies, funding, budgeting, promotion, and advertising. Individual chapters address the differences involved in marketing different types of events. The book also includes sample forms and contracts.

Professional Event Coordination, (2003), by Julia Rutherford Silvers

A comprehensive guide to essential competencies for event coordinators, this book examines the full event planning process and provides the tools and strategies to effectively procure, organize, implement, and monitor all the products, services, and service providers. It also covers event design, project management techniques, site selection, infrastructure services, entertainment possibilities, F&B options, and safety and security.