Operation: Upsize

Joseph P. Hollis, Jr. may no longer be a military man, yet when he gives the order to move, 28,000 soldiers start marching. This fall, Hollis' troops -- in reality, members of the Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) -- are marching to a new meeting place, the Washington (D.C.) Convention Center. That in itself wouldn't be newsworthy were it not for the fact that AUSA, in over 50 years of existence, has only met in hotels.

"We always meet in Washington because of our relationship with the U.S. Army," explains Hollis, director of industry affairs for the Arlington, VA-based association. "But no facility here, including the old center, could hold us." Indeed, since outgrowing its original hotel nearly 20 years ago, AUSA has been dividing its annual gathering between that property and another across the street. No wonder, then, that when the new convention center was first announced several years ago, AUSA was one of the first to sign up.

But if Hollis' decision to meet in a center was, as he says, "a no-brainer," planners considering a similar move should look before leaping. We talked to industry experts about what it takes, beyond space needs, to make the transition from hotel to center, as well as to planners who've successfully done it. Here's what they told us.

Leaving the Comfort Zone

Enjoy a challenge? If so, you're probably a good candidate for moving your meeting to a convention center. Think about it: You'll still be working with a hotel -- or hotels -- for your housing; now factor in all your center arrangements, from setup to security to carpeting to catering to transport to lighting to signage to AV, each of which is usually coordinated with a different staff at the center. David Kushner, president and CEO of the Profes-sional Convention Management Association (PCMA) in Chicago, puts it succinctly: "Using a convention center ratchets up the complexity level of your meeting quite substantially."

It also ratchets up the cost, since most likely you'll be paying for items that hotels often provide for free. "You've enjoyed the ambience of a carpeted ballroom, permanent signage -- all the nice hotel features you have to create in a convention center," notes Douglas Ducate, president and CEO of Chicago's Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR). In short, when you put your meeting in a center, you're initially working with a big, empty box.

Why would anyone do it? In AUSA's case, the reason was simple: The hotel's exhibit space was a converted parking garage -- dark, with low ceilings and no windows -- yet the association had a long waiting list of firms wanting to display their wares to the top Army brass who attend the show. Since announcing its move, AUSA has doubled its sales of exhibit space to more than $6 million and plans to add another 250,000 square feet next year. "We held a space draft during our 2002 meeting, using software that lets exhibitors design their own space," adds Rand Meade, AUSA's exhibit coordinator. "In six hours, we sold 86 percent of our space."

If you're thinking of moving, experts say, right now's an ideal time to explore your options at centers, which, because of the poor economy, may sponsor a shuttle service or otherwise help offset some of the expenses incurred with the venue change. That's what Sheila Riley, regional manager of HelmsBriscoe in Washington D.C., found in recent, first-time negotiations with the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. "The staffers were very responsive to my needs -- they explained the pricing structure and gave us free meeting space for a very reasonable FandB minimum," says Riley. She'd go back to the center "in a heartbeat. I was really pleasantly surprised."

And when AUSA's attendees set up camp at the Washington Convention Center on October 3, they'll be pleasantly surprised too: Besides jaw-dropping exhibits -- picture double-decker booths laden with popcorn machines, espresso bars, and other attention-grabbers -- they'll get roomier banquet space and won't have to march back and forth between properties. "The new venue gives us much more prestige," offers Hollis. "It's a win-win for our members and our exhibitors."