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Next-Gen Convention Centers

In the dog-eat-dog world of events marketing, today's convention centers must be designed to satisfy ever-escalating customer demands.

August 01, 2005 |

Douglas Ducate laughs when he recalls how simple the convention center industry used to be, when all cities had to do was throw up a "box with some docks" to become a viable destination.

As president and CEO of the Chicago-based Center for Exhibition Industry Research, Ducate has watched the industry transform into what he calls the "fourth generation" of event facilities, offering a unique ambiance, a variety of high-tech and flexible spaces, and hotel-quality finishes, fixtures, and furnishings.

"As quality has gone up, it has placed a strain on the competition," says Ducate. First- and second-generation facilities, like the Dallas Convention Center and Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York, are having a tough time competing with newer structures for the big national shows. "Many cities have a tough decision whether or not they're going to stay in the race," he says.

Cities that have chosen to compete have a tough road ahead. Las Vegas, with its near-unbeatable entertainment offerings and an annual marketing budget exceeding $130 million, has become the ultimate destination for many huge trade shows. Sin City, along with Orlando and Chicago, are attracting about half of the major national events business, says Ducate. The remaining prime trade show business is shared by 16 or so cities.

"There used to be a mix of at least half a dozen top-tier cities vying for the prime business," says Ducate. "Today, you can take Las Vegas and draw a line." Every other city is below that line.

Vying for local business

So, how do cities plan to compete with behemoths of the exposition industry?

One solution is to create facilities that cater to a more diverse audience. Some large convention centers are being designed with amenities that are attractive both for local community and corporate events, as well as national trade shows. The 1.8 million-sf expansion of the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, for example, includes a 5,000-seat auditorium that is divisible into three lecture areas to accommodate a multitude of events.

"They've had concerts, lectures, and even hosted 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' in there," says Curtis Fentress, FAIA, RIBA, principal-in-charge with local design architect Fentress Bradburn Architects. Completed last December, the expansion includes a 50,000-sf ballroom that can be subdivided into 18 rooms. "These spaces add an incredible amount of community use to the facility."

Convention industry consultant John Kaatz, VP with CSL International, Wayzata, Minn., says large auditoriums like the venue in Denver are be-coming increasingly popular. Houston, Minneapolis, New Orleans, and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., are among other cities to invest in beefed-up auditorium spaces within the local exposition hall.

"These are high-tech, divisible lecture halls with all the bells and whistles, including wireless capabilities and audio/visual technology suitable for project demonstrations and shareholder meetings," says Kaatz. He says Building Teams should plan plenty of vertical space to accommodate the raked seating. The auditorium must also tie into the convention center's pre-function area. "It can't be an appenda


Topped with a series of angular roof blades that contrast with Denver's vertical skyline, the newly expanded and renovated Colorado Convention Center has been transformed into a top-tier destination for national trade shows. The project added 1.8 million sf of space, including a 600,000-sf exhibit hall, 62 meeting rooms, a 500,000 sf ballroom, a 7,200-sf food court, and expansive lobby and pre-function spaces.
Photo: James P. Scholz

ge sticking out," says Kaatz.

Large, glamorous ballrooms and multipurpose spaces are also in demand, as convention centers strive to capture a bigger piece of the local events market. These spaces were once the reserved for the bowels of the convention center, but are now being placed front and center and are routinely sized 30,000–60,000 sf, with some exceeding 100,000 sf, says Andrew McLean, senior principal with Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates, Atlanta.

The 720,000-sf, $850 million McCormick Place West Building, currently under construction in Chicago, will feature a 100,000-sf ballroom that is divisible into five separate spaces. The 33,000-sf ballroom at the David Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh is twice as big as the next largest ballroom in the city. And a 40,000-sf ballroom under construction at Kansas City's Bartle Hall will dwarf others in the area—both in size and stature.

These spaces typically have a high level of finish, are carpeted, and have some type of architectural treatment for the ceiling, instead of exposed mechanical systems or a drop ceiling. Other features include permanent rigging points to accommodate temporary light structures and chandeliers that raise and lower, so as not to interfere with risers and audio/video equipment setup.

"These spaces are large enough to accommodate light exhibits and meetings, yet classy enough to hold assemblies, banquets, parties, and other small events that don't have the budget to decorate the space," says McLean.

So, where is all this business coming from? Mostly from local hotels and outdated nearby convention and events centers, says Ducate.

"Competition is no longer just city to city, but also within cities," he says. Some hotels are now contesting proposed convention centers for fear of losing local events business. "It's happening in Colorado Springs, Colo., and I'll think we'll begin to see it happen in more places," he says.

Catering to the corporate market can pay off in big ways, says Ducate: "McDonald's just held meetings for three straight weeks at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, rotating groups of 6,000 people each week. Mary Kay did the same for six straight weeks at the Dallas Convention Center. That's a totally different animal from the typical three-day trade show."

Cities looking to cater to a growing number of local corporate and community events, as well as national shows, are building massive ballrooms and multipurpose spaces with hotel-quality finishes. Colorado Convention Center's 50,000-sf ballroom is one of the largest in Denver.Photo: James P. Scholz

No more rubber chicken

The growth in corporate events has placed an even greater emphasis on food quality and service, says David Greusel, principal with HOK Venue, Kansas City. "They're demanding hotel-quality food, and in places other than the banquet hall or food court," he says.

Extravagant meals are being served in lobbies, pre-function areas, meeting rooms, banquet halls, and even on the exposition floor. This calls for increased budgets for kitchen space and equipment, as well as convenient access to virtually any part of the facility.

The 700-seat food court at the new Boston Convention and Exhibition Center has become a popular meeting and entertainment venue for meeting planners, says Donald Grinberg, FAIA, principal architect and director of Convention Center Architecture in the Boston office of HNTB Architecture, Kansas City, which co-designed the 1.7 million-sf convention center with Rafael Viñoly Architects, New York.

"They'll utilize the entire food court and then spill the food service out into the public corridors using mobile food stations," says Grinberg. "The decentralization of food service is all about customer service and keeping the people in the building. And attendees expect more than rubber chicken in these places."

Attendees also expect to be more productive at trade shows.

"Conventions are no longer social junkets where people spend their firm's money," says Grinberg. Companies expect their employees to not only network and bring in business, but also learn by attending the educational sessions.

Venues that are designed to maximize productivity are extremely attractive to meeting planners and exhibitors. Wireless Internet access, efficient transportation, and reduced walking distances to meeting rooms and food service areas are crucial components to increasing productivity.

The Boston facility has a total of 76 meeting rooms placed along corridors on either side of the exhibit hall. A series of bridges that span the expo hall connect the east and west meeting rooms. "As people come and go to the meetings, they're never very far from the expo hall," says Grinberg.

The quantity and quality of meeting rooms can make a huge difference in winning trade show business. Continuing education programs are now a chief component of professional expositions (as at the AIA Expo). The ratio of expo floor to meeting room space used to be in the 80–20 range, says Ducate. "In many cases, it's 60–40 or even 50–50 today."

Some cities are even considering movable walkways as a way to minimize walking distances. As part of the million-sf expansion to the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, the Building Team planned for future installation of a series of walkways that will eventually usher visitors to a new 2.5 million-sf expo building planned by the city. "We set up the entry points and access to exhibit halls so that significant runs of movable sidewalks can be installed adjacent to the exterior walls," says McLean, who headed TVSA's team on the $750 million project.


Undulating stainless steel panels mask a 1,000-car parking garage and provide a "lyrical backdrop" for public art displayed within the center, according to Curtis Fentress, principal-in-charge with Fentress Bradburn Architects.
Photograh: Nick Merrick, Hedrich Blessing

Get 'em in, get 'em out

Productivity of the facility staff is also important as convention center operations look to speed turnover rates of trade shows, meetings, and other events. This calls for ample and efficient back-of-house space, including storage areas, circulation corridors, and loading docks.

"You can never have enough storage space," says Bob Hodge, general manager of the Austin (Texas) Convention Center. "We have 12,000 chairs that are rarely all in use at the same time. If they're not stored properly—stacked in a corridor or hallway, for example—they get damaged and always seem to find a way to walk off."

Hodge specified generous amounts of dedicated storage areas on both floors of the center's 410,000-sf, two-story addition. This cuts down on the labor needed to move chairs, tables, and equipment up and down on the freight elevators.

Hodge offers another way to maximize labor: portable equipment. Stages, risers, and lighting systems on wheels cut down on the wear and tear of the equipment and result in faster turnaround with less labor. "These are great because we don't have to forklift them, drag them, stack them—they can be rolled into place."

Lack of storage can also have a negative impact on the loading operations, says Grinberg. The industry's rule of thumb is one dock for each 10,000 sf of exhibit space. "But over time, much of the dock space gets used for storage, recycling bins, and even parking, and the loading and unloading operations can become less efficient," says Grinberg.

Environmental conditions inside the facility during off-show hours can also have a negative impact on turnover speed. "The whole notion of productivity is not just about the number of loading docks, but the environmental conditions, such as lighting and air conditioning, conducive to loading and unloading," says Grinberg, who adds that temperatures can exceed 100 degrees F in exposition and back-of-house spaces during off-hours in the summer.

Introducing natural light and maximizing the stratification effect of expansive exhibit halls like the Boston Convention Center can help keep spaces "reasonably comfortable," says Grinberg. Upgrades in insulation and the use of "cool" roofs can also help the cause.

Operation of AC units is taboo, even in the blistering sun of Austin. "Energy costs are one of our biggest expenses," says Hodge. He urges operations staff to take small measures, like minimizing the number of times the facility's 30×40-foot roll-up dock doors are opened, to keep the spaces comfortable. "In my opinion, this is a problem that has yet to be solved by designers," says Hodge.

A glimpse into the future

So, what does the future hold for convention centers?

HOK's Greusel says next-generation facilities will not only tie into the fabric of the city, but they will also be packed with technologies to improve flexibility and speed show turnover.

For example, Greusel's team at HOK dreamed up an idea that involved the use of massive movable walls to separate the expo floor from pre-function or lobby spaces. This will allow facility operators to adjust the size of the exposition space and pre-function/lobby areas based on the type of event and amount of people.

"Space will always be finite," says Greusel. "Creating 'breathable' spaces is a way to offer more of that valuable space."

Closer to reality is the use of hydraulic lifts to raise and lower large portions of expo hall floors. This would allow operations staff to set up and tear down a trade show while another is live.

"This would reduce move-in time to almost nothing," says Greusel. "The time it takes to tear down a show and set up a show is usually as long as or longer than the show itself, and that's time when the convention center and hotels in town are not making any money."

How Building Teams are creating next-generation convention centers

Goal Solution
Cater to corporate clients High-tech auditoriums
Large ballrooms with upscale finishes
Hotel-quality food
Decentralized food service
Ample number of meeting rooms
Cater to local community events Large multipurpose rooms with upscale finishes
High-tech auditoriums
Efficient transportation options
Increase attendee productivity Minimize walking distances
Ample number of meeting rooms
Wireless Internet access
Efficient transportation options
Movable sidewalks
New technologies (e.g., electronic badges, reverse lead retrieval)
Speed trade show turnover rates Ample storage areas in close proximity to building components (e.g., ballroom, expo floor)
Portable equipment (e.g., stages, risers, and lighting systems on wheels)
Dedicated crate storage on site
Plenty of dock space (one dock for each 10,000 sf of exhibit space)
Comfortable environmental conditions (i.e., air temperature and lighting) for staff
The expansion of Denver's Colorado Convention Center includes a 5,000-seat auditorium, a light-rail station, and convenient vehicle access and parking, all of which have helped the facility draw both local corporate and community events, as well as trade shows and conventions.

Boston is now home to the largest convention center in the Northeast with its $850 million, 1.7 million-sf facility located in South Boston's newly restored seaport district. Topped with a bowed roof structure that evokes the city's nautical heritage, the facility has elegant pre-function, ballroom, and lobby space with grand views of Boston Harbor and the skyline.Photo: Brad Feinknopf
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