Cities Developing Vibrant Convention Districts

Well-designed convention districts improve the attendee experience and cut costs on transportation and logistics

Sam Bhandarkar Palm Beach Gardens

You can nail the speakers, the education sessions, the exhibitors, the networking receptions, and the show marketing, but if the city that's hosting your convention or meeting doesn't excite people, it's going to hit you in the attendance numbers. That's why Las Vegas often attracts a bumper crowd.

Another way to coax potential attendees off the fence is by choosing a city in which the convention center is in the heart of the dining, nightlife, shopping, and cultural experiences available -- where excitement is just a few steps away from your venue. That's why a small but growing number of forward-thinking cities are reinventing their convention center districts in the hope that more groups will make the journey.


Walkability Is a Winner
"If I'm attending a convention, I want convenience," says Gary Schirmacher, CMP, senior vice president of industry presence and strategic development at Experient, a global meeting planning and event management firm that is part of Maritz Global Events.  "I want to stay at a hotel that's across the street or very close to the convention center -- in a walkable district if possible. I want to be able to go to Starbucks and find restaurants that aren't a 15-minute cab ride away. I want to have everything nearby."

Being in an interesting, easy-to-navigate urban environment is also important to the Rockville, MD-based American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Indeed, when the organization sends out requests for proposal for its annual ASHA Convention -- a gathering that attracts 12,000 to 14,000 members -- there is always a question about the neighborhood surrounding the convention center.

"We ask destination marketing organizations to tell us about the walkability of their cities," says Ellen Shorthill, director of conventions and meetings for ASHA, which has 186,000 members and affiliates. "It matters dramatically to our attendees. It's not make-or-break, but is a heavy influencer."

Part of this is practical. Like Schirmacher, Shorthill notes that having the hotel block within walking distance of the convention center and the venues used for off-site events means a six-figure savings in the cost of coaches to shuttle attendees around. But there's more to it than just savings.

"For an attendee, the primary purpose of going to a conference is to learn," says Kelley Whetsell, president of Meeting Demands, a planning firm that helps the Content Marketing Institute bring 3,500 to 4,000 people from 55 countries to the Cleveland Convention Center every September for Content Marketing World. "But holding it in a walkable destination makes it much more attractive."

"Having a walkable downtown near the convention center is immensely important to planners," says John Bettag, vice president of sales for Explore St. Louis, the city's DMO. "Aside from the right convention center and hotel package, they often look at what the destination has to offer when attendees are not in meetings. I don't know where it falls in the top 10 list, but it has been important for a long time. It's a big part of what St. Louis brings to the table."

The America's Center Convention Complex -- which includes the 1,400-seat Ferrara Theater and the stadium of the NFL's St. Louis Rams -- is just a few blocks from famed Gateway Arch Park, which is currently undergoing a $380 million renovation and expansion. There are also some 7,000 hotel rooms in close proximity, many of them new or newly renovated, and a number of the restaurants and live-music venues the city is known for.

Well to the south, Sam Bhandarkar, CMP, CASE, event placement director for Palm Beach Gardens, FL-based LRP Publications, was looking for a venue for the second year of a conference focused on technology for human resources professionals. "For us, one of the keys to the success of this program is a destination that offers opportunities for attendees and exhibitors to get together in close proximity to the convention center and where they are staying," says Bhandarkar, whose company is a human-resources publishing and conference firm. "We wind down the day by 5 p.m., so attendees have time to go out and enjoy the destination, as well as continue talking about business, entertain, or just get out and reconnect with colleagues and friends."

The Palm Beach County Convention Center, just a half-hour from LRP, wasn't a destination Bhandarkar considered, until Discover The Palm Beaches invited him along with a group of planners to see its long-awaited new convention center hotel -- the 400-room Hilton West Palm Beach, which opened in January. He not only found a beautiful hotel with a comfortable resort feel just one swimming pool away from the convention center, but also CityPlace, a 72-acre outdoor dining, retail, entertainment, and residential development directly across the street, as well as the adjacent Kravis Center for the Performing Arts.

"CityPlace has a wide variety of dining options as well as movies and live music, and just north of that is Clematis Street, which has many local dining and entertainment options," Bhandarkar says. "Having a walkable destination blocks from the convention center and hotel was a key selling point." He found another walkable venue for the inaugural Human Resource Executive Talent Acquisition Tech Conference, to be held in November at the Austin Convention Center, in Texas, which is right in the heart of that city's lively downtown area, surrounded by live music, dining, and shopping, as well as the Colorado River waterfront.

"It is important for planners to look past rates, dates, and space," says Kelly Cavers, senior vice president of group sales for Discover The Palm Beaches. "The area around the Palm Beach County Convention Center is busy almost 24/7. You don't have to turn a ballroom space into something special at night because it is all right here -- the Kravitz Center, CityPlace, the Improv Palm Beach. And they'll all work with planners to brand open areas."


The Bottom Line
The walkable neighborhood around the Colorado Convention Center was a key factor in ASHA's decision to host its 2015 Annual Conference in Denver last November, says Shorthill. "It was our first time in Denver since 1968, and we had 14,054 attendees and exhibitors, our second-highest attendance ever. We sold out our room block and had to add to it. We ended up using 23 hotels, with 4,800 rooms on the peak night."

A noteworthy benefit, adds Shorthill, is that unlike non-walkable destinations, where there's a rush to book hotels nearest to the meeting site, "In Denver it was more diverse. People were able to choose to stay in brands they like because everything was so close."

Then there were incidentals like the money Shorthill didn't have to spend on subsidized box lunches at the convention center, because the proximity of so many stores and restaurants meant a lot of attendees ran out for lunch. In addition, "We saved a dramatic amount of money on shuttles -- between $75,000 and $100,000, plus another $10,000 on staff expenses," she notes. "We did not run shuttles for hotels within three to four blocks of the convention center, and used smaller shuttles for the hotels that were further out. And we had fewer shuttles in the morning because so many people walked. We saw considerably less ridership than we have in other destinations, although it helped that the weather was good."

Shorthill is not alone in this. Tom Pellet, director of meetings and conventions for the American Academy of Family Physicians, says he saved $100,000 by not having to shuttle his 10,000 attendees to hotels and event venues when the annual Family Medicine Experience show was held in Denver last fall. Experient's Schirmacher notes that shuttling convention groups around "can be one of the most expensive parts of a show. It easily runs to six figures."

Of course, the ROI of an association show goes beyond dollars and cents. There's also how much attendees liked the show, which impacts everything from their willingness to come again next year to their desire to remain an active member of the group.

In Shorthill's post-event surveys, she found that 82 percent of attendees gave the Denver conference a "highly positive" rating, and that many attendee comments focused on how much they loved the city and the neighborhood around the convention center. "There is also a perception that our level of organization is higher in walkable cities," she says.


Creating an Experience
There is a lot more to a desirable convention district than hotels and restaurants. Schirmacher quotes architect Todd Voth, a founder and senior principal at Kansas City, MO-based design firm Populous, and leader of its convention center practice: "The critical aspects are beauty, functional efficiency, urban integration, and a spirit of place and sustainability." It helps a lot if the neighborhood is part residential, Schirmacher adds. "When you have people living and working in a convention center district, it never shuts down. Your restaurants, shops, and attractions are especially vibrant."

The point, Pellet says, is to "create an experience for the attendees." In a tightly compact district like Denver's, with arts, entertainment options, restaurants, and hotels in immediate proximity, "people get the flavor of the city."

Safety is another key, says Shorthill, who notes that her attendees are 92 percent women. "The area was perceived as safe, so we saw a lot of people out walking." She notes that many attendees arranged morning walking groups with friends on their own, getting up at 6 a.m. to see the city and get some exercise before the 8 a.m. start.

The area around the Colorado Convention Center is full of restaurants that are not chains but eateries from local chefs. "Coors Field ballpark, the art museum, the symphony are all right there," Pellet notes. One night he rented out two venues for attendees to choose from: a symphony at the Denver Performing Arts Complex across from the convention center, and the Denver Arts Museum about five blocks away, next to Civic Center Park.

Whetsell says the same about Cleveland's convention center district. "There is good energy, people feel nice and secure," she says. "Walking around is big for attendees. As an attendee, when I'm in a walkable city, I am more likely to go out and experience it, to get re-energized. It is also easier to network, to share ideas while breaking bread."

 Then there's the Miami Beach Convention Center, which sits three short blocks from South Beach and two from the trendy hotels like the Delano South Beach, The Ritz-Carlton South Beach, and W South Beach that line Collins Avenue, at the core of one of the hottest and trendiest neighborhoods in the world. It is surrounded by fabulous nightlife, restaurants, and shopping, to say nothing of institutions like the Bass Museum of Art and the Miami Beach Botanical Gardens.

Off on the West Coast, the city of Long Beach made a deliberate decision to create a highly walkable downtown convention district in the mid-1990s to help spur the port city's economy. "The city and private partnership spent more than $1.5 billion developing the downtown, and that included a lot of development of the Rainbow Harbor area [next to the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center]," says Bob Maguglin, director of public relations for the Long Beach CVB. "Now we have one of the most walkable downtowns in all of America. Within an eight-block area around our convention center, you can easily walk to your downtown hotel, you can walk to over 120 quality restaurants. You will find comedy clubs, nightlife, and music venues of all types. You will find walking paths lit with colorful neon lightshows at night."

In fact, Long Beach has been rated the 10th most walkable city in America by Walk Score, a company that rates and promotes walkable neighborhoods. And the beach is just a 10-minute walk from the convention center doors.  



Questions or comments? Email [email protected]



This article appears in the June 2016 issue of Successful Meetings.

Building the Neighborhood
"If you build it, they will come" is rarely a good business plan, but two major American convention cities are focusing on reimagining the currently nonexistent neighborhoods around their convention centers as new, walkable districts.

Washington, D.C.
When the Walter E. Washington Convention Center opened in 2003, it was part of a city-led effort to revitalize the Shaw neighborhood, says Greg O'Dell, president and CEO of Events DC, the official convention and sports authority for the city.

"It's all about the experience," says O'Dell. "Meeting attendees today want to have memorable experiences, and we've spent a lot of time focused on trying to create those experiences."

Unfortunately, the effort began with a crawl instead of a sprint, he acknowledges. The 11 retail spaces along the convention center's perimeter were intended to "activate" the local community by attracting local residents.

That's changing, so the authority has launched an aggressive plan to lease the spaces to local chefs and other businesses, "to create a sense of place around the building," O'Dell says. "But the neighborhood around us had not matured yet."


New York City
In the Big Apple, the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center was long the antithesis of walkable, sitting on the Far West Side of Manhattan and several long and deserted (especially at night) blocks from anything of note.

That's all in the process of changing. The hugely popular High Line Park, a walkable green space on a long-abandoned elevated train line, connects the Javits Center to the new Whitney Museum of American Art as it winds through the trendy Chelsea and Meatpacking neighborhoods, packed with some of the city's best dining, shopping, nightlife, and arts venues.

But more important to the future is the Hudson Yards project, a 17-million-square-foot development under construction on a vast platform built over the rail yards that will bring some 125,000 workers, 4,000 residences, more than 100 shops and restaurants, 14 acres of public open space, and a 200-room Equinox-branded hotel, transforming one of the last unused areas of central Manhattan.

The Javits Center itself plans to embark on a $1 billion redevelopment later this year, adding 1.2 million square feet of meeting space, including a 500,000-square-foot, single-level space; a 58,000-square-foot high-tech ballroom; and a rooftop terrace.

-- Matt Alderton


Creating an Experience
There is a lot more to a desirable convention district than hotels and restaurants. Schirmacher quotes architect Todd Voth, a founder and senior principal at Kansas City, MO-based design firm Populous, and leader of its convention center practice: "The critical aspects are beauty, functional efficiency, urban integration, and a spirit of place and sustainability." It helps a lot if the neighborhood is part residential, Schirmacher adds. "When you have people living and working in a convention center district, it never shuts down. Your restaurants, shops, and attractions are especially vibrant."

The point, Pellet says, is to "create an experience for the attendees." In a tightly compact district like Denver's, with arts, entertainment options, restaurants, and hotels in immediate proximity, "people get the flavor of the city."

Safety is another key, says Shorthill, who notes that her attendees are 92 percent women. "The area was perceived as safe, so we saw a lot of people out walking." She notes that many attendees arranged morning walking groups with friends on their own, getting up at 6 a.m. to see the city and get some exercise before the 8 a.m. start.

The area around the Colorado Convention Center is full of restaurants that are not chains but eateries from local chefs. "Coors Field ballpark, the art museum, the symphony are all right there," Pellet notes. One night he rented out two venues for attendees to choose from: a symphony at the Denver Performing Arts Complex across from the convention center, and the Denver Arts Museum about five blocks away, next to Civic Center Park.

Whetsell says the same about Cleveland's convention center district. "There is good energy, people feel nice and secure," she says. "Walking around is big for attendees. As an attendee, when I'm in a walkable city, I am more likely to go out and experience it, to get re-energized. It is also easier to network, to share ideas while breaking bread."

The promenade alongside the Long Beach
Convention & Entertainment Center is
a lively spot, and illuminated by colored
lighting at nights
The promenade alongside the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center is a lively spot, and illuminated by colored lighting at nights

 Then there's the Miami Beach Convention Center, which sits three short blocks from South Beach and two from the trendy hotels like the Delano South Beach, The Ritz-Carlton South Beach, and W South Beach that line Collins Avenue, at the core of one of the hottest and trendiest neighborhoods in the world. It is surrounded by fabulous nightlife, restaurants, and shopping, to say nothing of institutions like the Bass Museum of Art and the Miami Beach Botanical Gardens.

Off on the West Coast, the city of Long Beach made a deliberate decision to create a highly walkable downtown convention district in the mid-1990s to help spur the port city's economy. "The city and private partnership spent more than $1.5 billion developing the downtown, and that included a lot of development of the Rainbow Harbor area [next to the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center]," says Bob Maguglin, director of public relations for the Long Beach CVB. "Now we have one of the most walkable downtowns in all of America. Within an eight-block area around our convention center, you can easily walk to your downtown hotel, you can walk to over 120 quality restaurants. You will find comedy clubs, nightlife, and music venues of all types. You will find walking paths lit with colorful neon lightshows at night."

In fact, Long Beach has been rated the 10th most walkable city in America by Walk Score, a company that rates and promotes walkable neighborhoods. And the beach is just a 10-minute walk from the convention center doors.  



Questions or comments? Email [email protected]



This article appears in the June 2016 issue of Successful Meetings.