Cover Story: Where All That Glitters May Bring Gold

Roger Krupa can get tongue-tied talking about the new Raleigh Convention Center.

It isn't because Krupa, director of the gleaming new facility that debuts this month, doesn't know what to say about its features—that the $222-million, 500,000-square-foot center offers 150,000 square feet of exhibit space, for example, plus 16 meeting rooms and a grand ballroom seating 2,400.

This is not a huge facility, granted, but a striking one, featuring in addition to its interior amenities, an exterior art wall that literally shimmers and flutters in the breeze. What has Krupa speechless is how the centeris the culmination of a citywide renaissance that seems to have brought Raleigh together as few things ever have.

"It's amazing the way Raleigh has embraced this," he says, "but in truth it's a combination of many factors." Both cause and effect, Raleigh's new expo facility is a paradigm for how a convention center, that much maligned public project, can be both a financially successful enterprise and at the same time a dynamic motivator of civic enthusiasm.

In addition to the new center, Krupa's "combination of many factors" includes improvements to Raleigh's infrastructure that have captured the imagination of both the city and meeting planners:

• The opening this summer of the new Raleigh Marriott City Center, a 400-room hotel with 15,000 square feet of meeting space and a 9,000-square-foot ballroom, adjacent to the new convention center.

• A concurrent $8-million renovation of the Raleigh Sheraton, also adjacent to the center, with an additional 18,000 square feet of meeting space and 355 guest rooms. (A nearby Clarion brings the total of guest rooms near the convention center to more than 1,000.)

• The development of a 5,000-seat outdoor amphitheater directly behind the new center, scheduled to open next May. A connection with concert promoter Live Nation is expected to bring 30 headline acts a year to downtown Raleigh, with plenty of open dates left for private events and convention use.

Add to these new developments the downtown presence, directly across the street from the new facility, of the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, where four theaters host some 800 events annually; a children's museum; history and natural science museums; 126 (and counting) restaurants and nightclubs in the immediate downtown vicinity; and the opening next month of a new terminal adding 17 new gates at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

"It's pretty dynamic right now," observes Andy Albright, president and CEO of National Agents Alliance (NAA), a Burlington, NC-based national association for sellers of mortgage insurance. NAA is the very first organization booked into the new convention center, with an estimated 2,000 members coming for an annual leadership conference September 12 through 14.

"The center is awesome, but more important, Raleigh is a name city now, growing in importance," Albright adds. "Since our members volunteer to come on their own dime, the attraction factor is key."

Raleigh's new appeal also has attracted the annual convention of the Phoenix Society's World Burn Congress, which in October is bringing 650 attendees and exhibitors to a conference focusing on the needs of burn survivors. "Raleigh has changed tremendously, especially in the past year," says Pam Peterson, associate director of the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, based in Grand Rapids, MI. "And the convention center is Raleigh's crown jewel. It's absolutely spectacular."

Intriguingly, Raleigh's new convention center is the last piece of a city revitalization plan that began years ago with—plans for a new convention center.

Inspiration and Culmination

For years the Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill urban centers have been dominated by the suburban area in their midst. The Research Triangle, fueled by the scientific and technology activities of the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University, and Duke University, became the monster that ate Raleigh meetings.

Some 35,000 people work in the Research Triangle area, and it sucked not only air but also most development and events out of the urban centers.

In the mid-1990s, however, Raleigh decided to be a player again. It announced a downtown revitalization program that was to begin with a new convention center. As time went on, the performing arts center was built with the gracious 1930s-era Memorial Auditorium as its centerpiece, and the museums were developed as well. Various other sports venues and museums went up, and several miles outside the city center the arena now called the RBC Center was erected, to host the Carolina Hurricanes ice hockey team and college basketball.

But the convention center, supposedly the first piece of the revitalization puzzle, wasn't built. Few believed in it; there simply was no faith in meetings and conventions as income generators. A referendum to finance a new center was defeated, but the other projects moved ahead with earmarked funds. Plans for a new center languished.

And a good thing, too, Krupa says.

"If we had built the convention center 10 years ago, it would have been a disaster," he says. Building a center first, without the hotels and infrastructure to attract and support conventions, would have created just one more of the typical white-elephant boxes that so many communities around the country are saddled with these days, he explains.

Meanwhile, a center-less Raleigh was enjoying a building boom. Increasing numbers of young professionals were moving into new housing downtown, and the city committed to spending $20 million to help finance the new Marriott (with the remaining $65 million coming from Noble Investment Group). Onlookers credit Mayor Charles Meeker, elected in 2001, with having a more favorable view of the possibilities of convention business, and for freeing up funding. Meanwhile the local lodging community agreed to kick in a 6 percent bed tax to fund a 30-year bond for a new center.

Raleigh's old 1950s-era facility, used solely for public shows, was imploded in 2006, and the new facility began to rise. The city was ready to move forward with a new-found commitment to meetings business.

Getting Raleigh Prepared

Raleigh sees its new center as both the culmination of its decade-long road to revitalization, as well as a stepping-off point in a new period of civic pride and allure for group business. As Denny Edwards, president and CEO of the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau, puts it: "The opening of the convention center is creating a lot of enthusiasm, but the key to success here is getting Raleigh prepared to host these groups."

And preparation there is. New signage is being installed downtown to direct both pedestrians and traffic as part of a "Wayfinding" program. A new downtown shuttle program featuring hybrid-fueled buses offers free-of-charge transportation for convention delegates. And a visitor information center has opened two blocks from the convention center to aid attendees with maps, directions, and information.

Perhaps more importantly, a customer service training program developed by the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association together with professors from a local community college held its first classes in July. The course is aimed at frontline personnel in hotels, museums, the airport, and restaurants—"anybody who touches our visitors," says Edwards.

"We also hosted a town-hall meeting in August, inviting everyone in the retail business community to talk about the convention market, and to let them know when groups will be arriving," he adds. "We want to ensure that everyone is fully staffed; if a convention is coming for four days beginning on a Tuesday night, for example, we want to make sure the bars and restaurants are well-prepared, and the attendees are welcomed."

Following the lead of other communities, Raleigh has instituted a "Connectors" program, working with local business leaders and the experts within the Research Triangle to lure meetings and convention business within specific industry groups.

"The health and medical market, science and technology, and higher education seem good for us here," notes Edwards.

He adds that Raleigh, as the state capital, also hopes for state association business. To encourage national associations to make Raleigh a stopping point, the CVB opened a sales office in Washington DC last April.

"The new convention center is going to change the downtown face of Raleigh," says Michele Bevevino, director of sales and marketing for the Raleigh Marriott City Center, during a brief respite between her own hotel opening in July and a gala celebration in August. "Just a few years ago, Raleigh had no foot traffic and was very under-utilized for a capital city. Now, we anticipate a vibrant scene in this area."

Fruits Unfolding

Enthusiasm for Raleigh's new offerings has become infectious among planners; even before the center has opened its doors, business is quite good. As of late July, the facility had booked 106 convention events of varying sizes through 2023, with a projected economic impact to the community of $82 million.

These meetings will bring 177,850 attendees to town, booking more than 375,000 room nights.

And remarkably, for a city that has never had a national, much less international, conference reputation, the new convention center already has secured bookings from 37 such organizations over the coming years, representing an estimated economic impact of $45 million.

"The early measure of the success of the convention center will be room nights," says Krupa. "Of course, being the building director, I worry about revenue, but I have to abandon that vocabulary and start talking room nights to gauge the center's success."

Krupa says that the 375,000 room nights already on the books is "double or triple what studies projected the impact of the building would be."

As for the CVB, monster conventions are not on its radar screen.

"The key to the success of this new convention center, and to Raleigh as a convention city, is to know what we are, but also what we are not," says CVB chief Edwards. "We're targeting groups we know will be an easy fit into our center and hotels, which in turn will make it easy for planners to host these events."

A perfect example is the World Burn Congress, an event hosted by the University of North Carolina's own burn center and North Carolina's state fire marshals. It's medium sized, but will fill most of both the new Marriott and the Sheraton. And its 650 prospective attendees, many of whom are handicapped, appreciate what Raleigh has to offer.

"It's just a natural," says Peterson, whose annual conference met last year in Vancouver, British Columbia. "On our first visit to Raleigh, both the Marriott and the convention center were literally holes in the ground, and we made our decision off models and diagrams. But the user- friendly aspect of the center, and the walkability of downtown Raleigh, are huge draws for us.

"To watch all this build and grow has been spectacular."

PEOPLE ARE INFRASTRUCTURE TOO

The community excitement surrounding Raleigh's new convention center is being replicated in other destinations, whether they have a new convention center to boast of or not. Local convention bureaus are reaching out to their communities with training programs and "ambassador" promotional efforts to support group business.

Spearheading many of these efforts is Mickey Schaefer, whose Tucson, AZ-based Mickey Schaefer & Associates helps cities do just that. "Keeping the meetings infrastructure of a destination up to date is important. But it's only part of the effort. People are the part of the equation that makes or breaks the brand identity of a city," Schaefer says. "So many don't know about destination marketing. That branding is huge, and that's why this is taking off. CVBs need to [carry] their branding down to the individual level."

Schaefer has created a program called Certified Tourism Ambassador (CTA) that trains and recognizes frontline employees—taxi drivers, restaurant staff, hotel front desk employees, police, airport workers, and so on—in better customer service, and about the power of representing their cities well.

These people, in turn, develop their own networking efforts, associations, and social groups which help build pride and camaraderie, all in support of destination marketing and customer service.

Cities such as Kansas City, Tucson, Milwaukee, and Baltimore are using Schaefer's CTA program, and city convention bureaus are seeing that the road to success is a joint effort. That means soliciting the involvement of city hall, business, the hospitality industry, and everyday people.

"The idea is to give our visitors a great experience," says Tom Noonan, president and CEO of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "We're teaching people to be 'aggressively friendly' about customer service." Noonan hopes to put 1,000 of Baltimore's frontline city employees through the CTA program by year's end.

Originally published Sept. 1, 2008

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