Playing the Field

After months—even years—of contentious debate, New York City's bid to build a stadium on Manhattan's West side collapsed this spring. The controversial project was linked, both figuratively and literally, to the proposed and long-awaited expansion of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. Those in favor of the new stadium argued that the venue could also be used as convention and exhibition space and would essentially function as an adjunct to the convention center for all but two weeks of the year. Opponents agreed that the city needed more convention space; they just wanted it in the form of a convention center, not a stadium.

The failure of the stadium plan calls into question the wisdom of tying the construction of sports stadiums to the expansion of convention centers. While the jury's still out on that one, a look at a few existing stadium and convention center complexes reveals how the two existing venues can actually work together—to the benefit of both the city and the conventioneer.

Argument number one for using stadiums as exhibition space is their nearly constant availability. Professional sports organizations, with the exception of baseball teams, use these facilities only a slim minority of the time. In St. Louis, for example, the Edward Jones Dome, home of the St. Louis Rams, is used for football "only 10 days per year," according to Nancy Milton, vice president of marketing and communications for the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission. Likewise in Indianapolis: "In any given year, the RCA Dome is in use only 16 percent of the time for Colts football games," according to Bob Schultz, spokesperson for the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association. "The rest of the time, it's used for special events, trade shows, and church assemblies." In a statement that could probably be applied to most cities that feature professional football stadiums, Milton says, "Lots of locals only think of it as a stadium for football, but conventioneers see it as a totally different facility."

Nevertheless, an empty stadium on its own is not exactly ready-made exhibit space. Planners say connection, or at least a very close proximity, to a convention center is crucial; neither planners nor attendees are willing to truck across town to meet in a stadium. Only two American cities, Indianapolis and St. Louis, boast convention centers that are physically connected to professional sports stadiums. Linda DeLeon, meeting planner for the Silver Spring, MD-headquartered Seventh-day Adventists, held her annual event this summer at St. Louis' America's Center, which includes both the St. Louis Convention Center and the Edward Jones Dome. "The stadium needs to be adjacent," she says. "We need meeting, exhibit, and food service spaces to be very near one another. Our schedule is very tight and does not allow time for shuttling people back and forth." It would also be costly, she adds.

Furthermore, exhibitors hardly want logistical complications to impede the procession of bodies to their booths. "Connectivity is really important to us for the flow of foot traffic," says Don Gilpin, assistant executive director of the Indianapolis-based Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA). CEDIA has held its annual trade show at the Indiana Convention Center & RCA Dome in Indianapolis since 1999. "We have about 25,000 attendees. If we use a disconnected area, for example, with exhibit floors on different levels, we have to include promotional campaigns to pull people into the different areas. But because the dome is physically connected to the convention center, we can plan the exhibitor layout so that bodies actually have to go across. We're able to plan the flow of traffic," he says.

Stadiums are ideal meeting venues for events in which very large groups of people must all be addressed simultaneously, and this makes them particularly appealing to religious groups. (And not just while on the road. Houston-based Lakewood Church, led by Pastor Joel Osteen, recently turned the 16,000-seat former Compaq Center in Houston, TX, into the country's largest house of worship.) This summer, Indianapolis hosted the annual General Assembly of the Kansas City, MO-based Church of the Nazarene. "They used the center for exhibitions, educational sessions, and meetings, and when it came time for worship, they knew they'd have a 60,000-seat church to pray in," says Indianapolis' Schultz.

The same is true in Tampa-St. Petersburg. The St. Pete Times Forum, home of the Tampa Bay Lightning National Hockey League team, although not actually connected to the Tampa Convention Center, is just one block away, and does see some convention business. "My groups are usually religious and the larger ones have been packaging the Forum because it's in such close proximity," says Michele Pruitt, national sales manager for the Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau. "They have meetings and workshops that take place in the convention center, and then they use the arena for the general session or any competitions, activities, or exhibits. They need seats that are in a covered arena-style setting that allow the stage to be seen by the maximum number of people." Pruitt says this arrangement was instrumental in helping her land the 2007 annual gathering of the Hazelwood, MO-headquartered United Pentecostal Church Inter-national. And, she says, it has also helped seal deals with nonreligious groups, including the 2009 annual meeting of the Adelphi, MD-based National Association of Black Journalists (an event which will incorporate concerts in the Forum).

Using a stadium as convention center space comes with its own set of challenges. Kristy Glass, director of meetings and exhibitions for the Schaumberg, IL-based American Foundry Society, has held that organization's largest trade show, Cast-Expo, at the St. Louis Convention Center several times. This year, her organization combined its show with the show of another association, after having already booked space in St. Louis, so the larger, combined show used the Edward Jones Dome as expanded convention space. "We were pretty used to the exhibit hall, but the stadium was new, so we had to look at new ways to get attendees over there," she says. Glass established three separate entries to the exhibit spaces (whereas previously she'd used just one) so that some attendees entered the dome and then gradually made their way to the convention center, and vice versa. Additionally, attendees were brought to the event on shuttle buses, which unloaded at each separate entrance, in an effort to distribute traffic more evenly among the booths. "We also placed some huge signs at the connecting hallway so everyone knew there were more exhibits to see," she says.

"It worked for us," Glass says of using the stadium as additional space. "I think traffic and attendance were pretty equal between the center and the stadium." But, she admits, some exhibitors weren't entirely convinced. "Of course, we had exhibitors in the stadium who were a bit concerned that their traffic seemed to be on the lighter side," she says. "But that may have been a 'Grass is always greener' sort of thing."

In the end, however, Glass says the decision of whether or not to use a stadium in this way should be driven at least in part by that venue's operating history. "For some domes, it's just not feasible," she says. "Some are harder to move into because they weren't designed for this purpose, so they don't have as many loading docks and so on." The venues that are used as convention space regularly are better equipped to meet meeting planners' needs.

Adjacent stadiums serve as more than simply overflow convention space. "Having a 60,000-seat arena as part of the footprint is a very marketable feature for conventions," argues Indianapolis' Schultz. "Some of the shows we get could potentially fit into an exhibit hall, but the dome offers 100,000 square feet of column-free exhibit space with virtually no ceiling. It's added flexibility."

CEDIA's Gilpin says the stadium option is as appealing to his audiovisual show as it is to visiting evangelists. The bifurcation of space allowed him to keep all his audio exhibitors on one side, in the Dome, and all his video exhibitors in the convention center. In the Dome, he says, Astroturf was replaced with carpeting, and his exhibitors built booths "right on the field."

But perhaps the greatest testament to the successful partnership of stadiums and convention centers is Indianapolis' approved $900-million project to both expand the convention center and build a new adjacent stadium, to be completed by the fall of 2010. After more than 20 years of the two venues operating jointly, the city and state saw fit to reinvest in the partnership. And now, the city has been awarded a spot on the NCAA's permanent rotation. That spot ensures that every year for the next 36 years, Indianapolis' new stadium and expanded convention center will host either the men's or the women's Final Four tournament, or the NCAA National Convention.