October 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions Built to Spec October 1998 Current Issue
October 1998
Built to Spec

Customer advisory boards let planners help shape the ideal facility


Bob Lucas, assistant executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, has always had his eye on San Diego. As a meetings destination, he feels the city would be a big bonus draw for the association's annual three-day convention, an event that typically draws upwards of 15,000 members. But there is one major drawback: Lucas just doesn't like the design of the San Diego Convention Center.

So, when convention center executives recently tapped him for a two-year stint on a 30-member customer advisory board, formed to advise a league of architects, designers and planners on a $214 million expansion that will practically double the center's exhibit space, he eagerly agreed. "I accepted the invitation to join their advisory board because we've always had a high interest in going to San Diego, but we didn't feel we could deal with the current convention center facility," says Lucas. "I felt this was a great opportunity to tell them what I would like to see in their center. While being on the board didn't cause me to become interested in the city, it did make me evaluate it in different ways. We will definitely go there now."

Build it right, and they will come
Lucas' response is great news for convention centers' top executives who are pulling meeting and trade show planners into the design process by asking them to serve on customer advisory boards. Folks at the convention centers are noting planners' requests and, in some cases, altering and redesigning plans based on what they're hearing.

"Input from end users is crucial, because they are the ones using the product at the end of the day. And that product has changed dramatically in the past 15 to 20 years," says Bob McClintock, general manager of the new Atlantic City Convention Center in New Jersey, which also relied heavily on client input in formulating its design. "It used to be that convention centers were boxes with docks. Today they have significant technological infrastructures and are built to be architectural signatures of their communities."

Henry Munford, director of marketing for the Georgia World Congress Center, which will roll out its massive Phase IV expansion in 2002, agrees. "I can't imagine not getting input from the customer. That's who you're building it for," says Munford, who helped put together the Atlanta center's advisory board. "Our customers helped us prioritize needs. Our only hesitation in soliciting customer input is we know we'll have to go back to them and say we couldn't satisfy everyone with everything. But I believe that as long as we satisfy the majority, that's the main thing."

And what are planners asking for?

More flexible space, please
Association planner Deborah Richardt, CMP, director of meeting services for the New York City-based American Lung Association, wants flexible meeting space. "I want more space, but it also has to be flexible to keep up with my group's ever-changing needs," says Richardt, an advisory board member for both the San Diego Convention Center and Seattle's Washington State Convention Center. "If the space is not designed to be flexible - movable walls, good acoustical design of material - then it won't work." Seattle is hoping to give her what she wants. "Our expansion represents primarily more exhibit space and more flexibility," says Michael McQuade, director of sales and marketing for the Washington State Convention Center. "It has been designed with large plenary sessions in mind. Planners don't necessarily need all the exhibit space, but they may have a large, sit-down function for 3,000, which won't fit in a hotel ballroom."

Whether Sylvia Ratchford, executive director of the Atlanta-based Hinman Dental Society, returns to the city's Georgia World Congress Center depends on how much flexible space is built into its expansion design.

The society, which met this year at the World Congress Center for the first time, for a four-day event that drew 23,000 attendees, ended up overflowing into adjoining hotels because there wasn't enough meeting space to accommodate the group. "We're primarily an education-intensive group. So I need meeting space that is both large and flexible," says Ratchford, who sits on the center's advisory board. "We'd like to have our event under one roof. So we're closely watching and observing to see what happens with the expansion. I really appreciate that they are bringing the customers in and considering their questions and concerns."

The meeting space is where?
When designers working on Phase III expansion plans for New Orleans' Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, to be unveiled in early 1999, learned planners on their customer advisory list weren't happy with the proposed layout of the exhibit space, they changed it.

"In our initial design, some of our meeting space was at the rear of the exhibit hall and some at the front, above the registration area. But based on the hue and cry we got, all of the meeting space was moved to the front of the building above registration," says Don Engler, director of marketing for the convention center, which blanketed its association meeting planner bases in Chicago and Washington, D.C., with proposed design plans and asked for feedback. "They said, ÔWe want it all together and easy to find.' We were able to go back and do some redesign, which was a very significant change."

Let's talk technology
Convention centers are pumping design dollars into top-notch technology. "One of Atlantic City's most significant investments was the technological infrastructure," says McClintock. "We recognized that annual groups and state and regional associations needed to plug in their computers while they were on-site so they could continue their operation."

"We were basically told to design our expansion with Ôinternet connections everywhere we want them,' satellite connections, cable, the whole shopping list," says Munford of the Georgia World Congress Center.

"Technology is big for everybody, and more and more people are going to use it," says Lucas of the National School Boards Association. "It's aggravating to put in and take out lines and then know they're going to be put in and taken back out by somebody else. It's also very expensive."

Pretty is as pretty does
The Memphis Cook Convention Center's new expansion will have lots of artwork to go along with its new space when it opens in 1999. That's because city fathers insist on it. "In Memphis there is a push to include artwork in buildings. There is even a commission established to make sure artwork is included in public buildings," says Pierre Landaiche, general manager of the Memphis Cook Convention Center. But while some meeting planners are drawn to the pricey wall hangings, others, like Deborah Richardt, are asking convention centers, "Where's the beef?"

"You're starting to see aesthetics take a back line to things we really need to make our meeting work, and that's just fine with me," says Richardt. "All those beautiful, arty things are being replaced with things we really need, like more workstations, technology lines and phone banks."

Lisa Block, director of meetings and conferences for the Society for Human Resource Management, wants more space, but the Alexandria, Va.-based planner, who sits on San Diego's advisory board, refuses to sacrifice aesthetics for the added footage. "My number-one priority is more space, and, second, a layout that allows the building to take advantage of its location," says Block. "San Diego's convention center is on the waterfront. It's very representational of the destination as a whole. I think it's important that the expansion not lose that special feeling."

Don Engler would like to think aesthetics are important in the selection process, too. But he's seen enough client redecorating in his years at New Orleans' Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to think otherwise. "Aesthetics are important from the standpoint that they make a statement about the type of maintenance and care you put into your facility," says Engler. "But it's ironic that some people say aesthetics are important and then when their decorator arrives, they carpet the floor and all the walls."

It sure looks nice, but will it work?
The three-dimensional rendition looks impressive. But does the fancy mock-up really tell you what you need to know about how smoothly operations will function during your show? When the San Diego Convention Center's team of architects and designers presented planners in their customer focus group with expansion plans and asked them to comment on their conceptualization, the back-of-the-house operations fell under scrutiny.

"There were comments about the back of the house and how meeting rooms were going to be serviced, how catering staff would service the ballrooms, etc. Based on customers' comments, we went back and changed the flow of the elevators," says Christine Shimasaki, vice president of sales and marketing for the convention center.

For the Memphis Cook Convention Center ballroom expansion, back-of-the-house issues were a major consideration. "A lot of our customers focused on food and beverage and how we would improve that," says Landaiche. "So one of the enhancements we made to the project was the addition of a separate 8,000-square-foot kitchen to service the ballroom."

Trade show wish list
Trade show managers, like Mike Dean, president of San Francisco-based Western Exhibitors, are looking for clear-span, single-floor space. That's because hauling exhibits up stairs and loading and unloading via elevator is costly in labor time, especially when you're talking union dollars.

"My needs are primarily clear-span, single-floor space with easy access to electrical lay-ins. I don't want a multiple-floor facility," says Dean, who advised Seattle's Washington State Convention Center on its expansion. "I'm willing to put up with parking and freight access, but if things like accessibility, storage facilities, high-quality cooling and lighting are not inherent in a center, it raises your costs, and your show becomes more expensive to put on - which means less profits." He adds, "While Seattle has not maximized its capability for big trade shows, primarily because its major audience is professional associations, I will definitely continue to go there, and I can't wait for [the center] to expand the space."

Back to Current Issue index
M&C Home Page
Current Issue | Events Calendar | Newsline | Incentive News | Meetings Market Report
Editorial Libraries | CVB Links | Reader Survey | Hot Dates | Contact M&C