Convention Center Innovators

From wireless networks to superb food, here's how convention centers are enticing planners.

We tend to speak of convention centers in terms of square feet, as though they are simply boxes into which we place our attendees and exhibitors. Certainly some convention centers approach business that way. But savvy operators know they're not just selling four walls and a roof. Managers of these convention centers have found new and innovative ways to work with meeting groups.

Space Guarantees San Diego Deals for 2010 In January, the San Diego Convention Center Corp. introduced a simplified contract that guarantees convention and trade show space and rates 10 years in advance. We know of no other convention center facility in the United States that is willing to give solid prices for 2010. Previously, the convention center had, like many other facilities, been willing to make forward contracts of up to two and a half years.

What prompted the change? Area hotels were asking for guarantees up to seven years out, and the SDCCC sales team thought that any executive willing to make long-term financial commitments to major hotels ought to be able to get the same commitment from the convention center. The contract has some inflation-shielding terms: Square-foot prices rise by a few cents over the 10-year term. However, no other financial machinations are behind the policy - no forward buying of Treasury bonds or currency futures contracts. "We feel very comfortable leading the industry in this area," says Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the SDCCC.

Architecture Hong Kong Builds on Its Strengths There are two schools of thought about convention centers. Some operators view the convention center as a big, empty box into which meetings and exhibits are inserted. Some, like the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, want organizers, exhibitors, and attendees never to forget that they are somewhere in particular. That combination of a sense of place, along with its aesthetics and functionality, led the American Institute of Architecture's Chicago chapter to give the 1.6-million-square-foot HKCEC Extension its "Distinguished Building Design" award in 1999.

The building faced an important design constraint, according to Larry Oltmanns, design partner with Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, architects for the project. "Land is more expensive than construction in Hong Kong," he says. "To build a sprawling, one-story building in the style of America - home of the wide-open spaces - would have been seen as extravagant."

Instead, Oltmanns and his staff designed a four-level building that never lost sight of functionality. There are truck docks on every level - exhibitors are not constrained by the dimensions of a freight elevator. Having four levels also means four opportunities for scenic views.

"If you're in any of the public spaces, you've got a view of the harbor and of the Central district, which is the heart of downtown Hong Kong," he says. "You're not in an amorphous space that could be anywhere in the world - you're having a very specific experience."

Wired Dallas Gooses Its Wireless Network "We're pretty fast, but we're going to be faster," says Paula Tait, Internet sales manager for the Dallas Convention Center. Dallas was first in the world to install a wireless network on its exhibition floor, in July 1997. And the CVB, which owns and operates the system, has no intention of becoming roadkill on the information superhighway. So the current 3 megabit, high-end wireless system - already twice as fast as a T1 line - is headed for the old networks home.

The meeting rooms, unlike the exhibit floor, are hard-wired at 10 megabits per second, over a 17-mile fiber-optic network, because the wireless system won't operate through concrete walls. The wired network can be connected to the wireless one.

What's the advantage of a wireless system? "Before wireless, the exhibitors had to come in a week in advance, crawl along the catwalks, and wire everything through the ceiling to set up a network drop," says Tait. "Now, we just give them a little antenna that connects to their hub, which gives them wireless access to computers on the exhibit floor." All the computers on the floor need are Ethernet cards and browsers. Organizers don't have to pay anyone to run cable.

Services available range from a simple connection to the Internet from an exhibit booth (which Tait says takes all of five minutes) to a booth-to-booth network to a private, encrypted network.

Food Service Laurels for Fort Lauderdale You have no doubt seen the little red, blue, and gold coat of arms of the Chaine des Rotisseurs on the walls of the kinds of restaurants you don't go into unless you have a really important client (and a really great T&E budget). The Chaine goes back to 1248, when it was a guild of meat roasters in France - started by a saint, no less (St. Louis, who was king at the time). These days it's an international professional fine-dining society. And, incredible but true, one convention center in the United States has been inducted into the organization - the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center in Florida.

The man behind this unprecedented honor is David Berman, the convention center's executive chef. His qualifications in fine dining include stints at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington,D.C., and at Sheraton's world headquarters in Boston. Berman's ambitions for convention center fare are lofty:

"I want people to have something they'd never think of getting at a convention center," he says. "I want them ... to be happily surprised by the food."

The French association notwithstanding, Berman and his core staff of 12 don't limit themselves to quenelles and souffles. They'll gladly produce Italian, Asian, Caribbean, or Tex-Mex menus and themes - always, says Berman, with attention to both taste and presentation.

Performance Guarantees Your Money Back from Northern Kentucky The Northern Kentucky Convention Center knows it isn't likely to win the glamour destination sweepstakes, so it has found an innovative way to get a company's attention: It offers a money-back guarantee. In the first year of the unconditional Meetings Guarantee Program, not one qualifying group has asked for its money back.

According to Northern Kentucky CVB spokeswoman Sheree Allgood, the novel program has helped to entice nearly 20 groups, representing more than 23,000 room nights, to book their meetings at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center, which opened in February 1999. Hotels in the region have signed on to the program as well.

Although the guarantee is unconditional, groups must meet certain requirements to qualify. A group must generate at least 250 rooms per night for three nights and agree to pre- and post-convention meetings with the CVB or convention center staff.

If a group is not satisfied, it will receive a free day's rent at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center, which translates into upward of $12,000.

Community Relations D.C. Center Embraces Its Neighbors The Washington Convention Center Authority in the District of Columbia is building a new 2.3-million-square-foot convention center. A main attraction of the old convention center is location: It's between the Capitol Building and the White House, in a neighborhood known as The Shaw.

The WCCA knew the location was a good draw and wanted to keep it. That meant convincing the city that the nearby expansion, a 16-acre project, could be built without destroying the neighborhood.

The WCCA, in consultation with neighborhood organizations, hit upon an innovative way to get the community behind the new construction: It started the Shaw Comprehensive Job Training Academy,where local residents learn the skills they need to work at the Convention Center and get information about other nearby programs.

Is it working? Yes - well enough that Randy Wells, a Shaw community leader, has proposed that the Academy become a permanent neighborhood organization.

Labor Relations Philadelphia Negotiates Labor Education "This is a good program," says Mike Conway about the Pennsylvania Convention Center's (PCC) new certification program for workers at the 1.3-million-square-foot Philadelphia venue. Why is Conway's opinion so important? Because he's the Teamster Steward at the PCC, and if a union leader thinks training backed by the PCC is a good thing, then it's a fair bet the program will succeed.

Only union members who have completed the program will be allowed to work on the exhibit floor, and their status will be distinguished by the badges they will wear, which will feature bar codes indicating the skills and certification level of the workers wearing them.

The first certification course, in forklift safety, was given late last year, in sessions sponsored by the PCC and GES Exposition Services. More than 200 PCC union workers took part in the eight classes offered over four days at the convention center. In the works are training sessions in hospitality skills and in the use of other heavy equipment.

How did the PCC get the unions to acquiesce to this training program? Simple self-interest, according to Conway of the Teamsters. "The more work that comes to the building, the better for us."

Security Vancouver is Watching You At the Vancouver (B.C.) Trade & Convention Centre, they're keeping an eye on your event's security - many eyes, that is. By virtue of being part of the 172,000-square-foot Canada Place, the convention center is protected on the outside by a state-of-the-art closed-circuit television system featuring a special interface and routing system built by Cybermation Systems, Richmond, B.C. The most important feature of the system is that it's ubiquitous around the center and Canada Place's other facilities.

The secret, says Arthur Ott, vice president of Cybermation, is proprietary technology that lets security personnel monitor many locations on the same screen. A graphical user interface allows for camera panning and tilting so cameras can track movement from a central office. Approximately 50 cameras watch over Canada Place.

Inside the convention center, security is handled by traditional means, including regular security officer patrols and extensive use of motion detectors. Between the outside eye and the inside patrols and monitors, not much gets out of the facility that isn't supposed to.

Web Site Vegas Online: A Sure Thing Dow Jones and Co., which brings you the stock index and The Wall Street Journal, among other business services, reviews and rates Web sites at its Dow Jones Business Directory. Sites are rated for content, speed, navigation, and design. Only one convention center makes the cut with Dow Jones:, where planners can latch onto content that is good enough to use as the basis for decision-making.

What makes this site innovative is the completeness of its information. Yes, you've been to sites that have mechanisms for submitting RFPS, hot dates information, diagrams of the convention center, links to area hotels. But how many sites have information about conforming with the Americans with Disabilities Act? How many have direct links to such outside vendors as Internet and telephone service providers?

It isn't just that the site has lots of information and lots of links.It's the quality of the site's information that sets it apart. For example, nearly every listing for a service includes a mail address and a telephone number. For key contacts such as the convention center director of facilities, the site provides his name and phone number. Touches like this may seem obvious until you visit the many convention center sites that only list e-mail addresses.

Possibly the best feature at the site is the interactive calendar, which allows planners to pick a time slot for their conference and then see all the other conventions and special events that will be in town at the same time. The listings often include a contact name and phone number for the organizations listed, as well as an estimate of attendance. Even in a city that swallows meetings of 10,000 people whole, isn't it nice to know before you negotiate who else you'll be sharing the casinos with?

Community Benefits Birmingham Harmonizes Conventions and Community Convention centers that host only conventions can distance themselves from their host cities. A neighborhood populated only by convention-goers isn't much of a neighborhood. There are practical aspects to engaging the community in convention-center-related activities: The community gets value from the facility, so local taxpayers aren't so quick to call it a boondoggle; the community responds by providing restaurants and business services that are competitive enough to serve locals.

A fine example of this philosophy at work is the Birmingham Symphony Hall, which is part of the International Convention Centre in Birmingham, England. The National Exhibition Centre, which owns and operates the hall and the ICC, as well as the giant National Exhibition and Convention Centre outside town, took a financial risk when the hall was built in 1991. But the risk paid off. Symphony Hall has not only been lavished with praise, it was lucky enough in its early years to have as its main tenant the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, led by superstar conductor Simon Rattle.

The Birmingham facility has been careful not to sit on its laurels: The hall also offers a program that allows local families to buy tickets for classical concerts at substantial discounts and derives income from hosting popular music events. This leads to a third and fiscally important reason for the NEC to invest in Symphony Hall: It smooths out the cash flow between conventions. From September 1998 through August 1999, 5.6 million people attended 877 exhibitions, conferences, entertainment, and sporting events at the NEC's various venues - a consistent level of activity.