Meetings & Conventions Built to Spec October
Built to Spec
Customer advisory boards let planners help shape the ideal
BY CHERYL-ANNE STURKENB
ob 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
"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
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
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
"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
"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."
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