The Evolution of Convention Centers

duke convention

"When people go to a meeting today, they expect to see a show," says Tim Foster, production manager at the McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, CA. "What we've done gives our clients a far more efficient use of time and space, and allows them to give people what they want."

Foster is referring to the $22 million renovation Team San Jose just completed on the facility's exhibit halls, bringing the in-house lighting and sound infrastructure to a whole new level. And Foster knows of what he speaks: His office walls are covered with autographed tour posters from Neil Young, Jefferson Starship, Norah Jones and more from the days when he was on tour with each as their production manager.

"We've installed a Meyer Sound system," Foster enthuses, referring to the Berkeley-based speaker company long known for its cutting-edge acoustics research, as well as its affiliations with symphony halls and pioneering work with Francis Ford Coppola and the Grateful Dead. "And we had ETC Lighting invent a 4K lighting chip just for us" -- this is a neutrally balanced, highly flexible light that allows for a wider range of looks than you'd find in many exhibit halls. "Seriously, this is the best, most fun thing I've worked on since Rust Never Sleeps," notes Foster, alluding to Neil Young's classic album.

For planners, the project represents the leading edge of a trend toward more flexible, efficient, performance-ready spaces in their meeting halls. In San Jose, Foster and company ripped out the ceilings in the halls and painted the skeletal infrastructure black, so the rigging and production setup could be a much faster, more efficient process. Cutting-edge tech allows for remote, mobile-device control of each light and speaker, independently, throughout the hall.

The result is a boon both for show organizers and the venues themselves: More efficient setups allow for faster load-in and load-out, which keeps the facilities open and busy.

Turnkey flexibility
A similar mindset was behind the recent $60 million renovation project at California's Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center - note the facility's name - particularly the $10 million makeover applied to the center's Pacific Ballroom. That project turned the 1960's-era Long Beach Arena into a highly flexible, technologically advanced 45,000-square-foot event space capable of rapid room transformation and turnover.

The designers behind the Pacific Ballroom transformation developed an enormous metal tension-grid ceiling for the space, which not only is suspended above the room but can be moved up or down -- facilitating the rapid transformation of rigging and lighting for a wide variety of uses, from sporting events to intimate banquets. A curtain wall comes down from the grid, creating a side wall and therefore a room within a room for smaller events.

Long Beach installed a high-tech sound and lighting system in the ballroom - including 180 pinpoint lights, meaning as many as 180 tables could be individually lit - designed so that no additional A/V is required, potentially saving clients thousands of dollars. That kind of room-ready philosophy is apparent throughout the center, in fact. Much of it has been furnished with unique pieces from Restoration Hardware, all of which is included in room setups.

"We really wanted to create a turnkey facility," says Steve Goodling, president and CEO of the Long Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, who has personally seen to much of the décor. "Clients really don't have to outsource much here."

Design evolution
These recent renovation projects serve as tech-forward examples of a philosophy that's been evolving over the past decade. Over that time, Seattle-based LMN, an architecture firm known for its expertise in center design, has been drawing inspiration from performing-arts projects and applying that to convention center ballrooms.

"Ballrooms have become venue-defining spaces for many convention centers, and an important evolution in the character of these spaces has been the introduction of theatricality into the functional mix," says Rafael Vinoly-Menendez, a partner at LMN. Many of the firm's recent projects have involved "more immersive, theatrical spaces in convention centers," he adds.

Here, too, the ceiling has been a focal point. LMN has incorporated designs in ballrooms that allow for easy rigging access and flexibility -- while acknowledging that the typical height of convention center ceilings represents an opportunity to add room-defining elements. Using vertical fins and geometric shapes together with theatrical lighting, LMN preserves access to the ceiling while simultaneously creating a more intimate setting in what could otherwise be cavernous spaces. LMN-designed convention center ballrooms in Cincinnati; Columbus, OH; New Orleans; Cleveland; and Winnipeg and Vancouver, in Canada, all serve to reinforce that approach.

The combination of technology and theatricality sets the stage for engaging performances and presentations - and that's indeed what the people want, be they attendees or the show organizers who want to keep them coming back.