by Sarah J.F. Braley and Lisa A. Grimaldi | March 01, 2017

To stand out from their competitors in today's fierce events industry, convention centers not only have to provide enough space, but also offer the latest design, technology, services and even neighborhood cachet. 

Following, M&C showcases forward-thinking convention centers that are expanding and enhancing their facilities to meet the modern needs of groups and local communities. 

> McCormick Place, Chicago
When the Chicago Firehouse restaurant, about eight blocks from the city's McCormick Place convention center and long a favorite of conventioneers, reopened last month following a 2014 fire, it helped signal the fact that the area around the center and Navy Pier (just to the north) is ripe for development.

"We're getting more and more nightlife and entertainment around the center," notes Moira O'Brien, director of sales for McCormick Place SMG. "It's a great time to be here and book here, but in a year it's going to be much better."

O'Brien is looking forward to two big openings coming in the next couple of months. In July, the 1,205-room Marriott Marquis Chicago, connected to the convention center by skybridge, opens for business with some 90,000 square feet of meeting space of its own. The new property joins the current anchor hotel, the 1,258-room Hyatt Regency McCormick Place. 

Just announced for the district is a triple-branded Hilton project that will connect another 466 guest rooms to the facility, this time off the west building. Ground was broken in January on the combined Hilton Garden Inn, Hampton Inn and Home2 Suites property, which will open in late 2018 with a restaurant, a Starbucks and a bar.

Also coming online this year, aiming for a fall opening, is the Wintrust Arena, the new home of DePaul University's Blue Demons basketball team, and available for convention-center clients when the sports calendar is clear.

"The arena is a sweet spot, sizewise, seating 10,000 in the round," O'Brien says of the building. Plus, its wave-shaped roof will add to Chicago's architectural cachet. "It's not a massive venue. People are going to be looking to house general sessions there."

Inside McCormick Place, additional lounge space with permanent charging stations has been created between the north and south buildings, and in various nooks that once were filled with pay phones.

The area around the convention center is being rebranded as it grows and now is called McCormick Square. Also enlivening the neighborhood is the new Rylon's Smokehouse, while a pizza place called Pizano's and Pasta is gearing up to open, with more to come.

> George R. Brown Convention Center, Houston

A $1.5 billion reimagining of the area around Houston's George R. Brown Convention Center came under the spotlight thanks to a little game called Super Bowl LI, played at NRG Stadium on Feb. 5. The center and the Discovery Green park in front hosted 10 days of festivities; the city figures about a million people participated in the festivities.

"Everything we wanted was open," says Peter McStravick, chief development officer for Houston First, the city entity that runs the convention and performance facilities in town. New hotels included the 1,000-room Marriott Marquis Houston, which debuted last December with 150,000 square feet of meeting space and five restaurants, all connected to the Brown Center.

The city took the opportunity of hosting the big game to make the center more visually appealing, to create a "front door" for the facility and to connect the five halls with a concourse.

Also on the agenda was the narrowing of the street in front of the center, where it faces Discovery Green, from nine lanes down to two. This helped make way for an expansion of the sidewalk area with outdoor dining and places to sit and chat. The concourse of the GRBCC sports three new restaurants, with one more on the way.

An extra plus came from hosting the Super Bowl: The WiFi infrastructure needed around Discover Green and in the GRBCC to host all those phones, laptops and tablets is now permanent. And, like at McCormick Place, old pay-phone banks have been turned into charging stations, and modular furniture with outlets and USB ports now promote "pod activity," allowing people to work in groups of 5 to 10 (or larger, as needed by meeting hosts).

"I believe that what we have done here is the way convention centers are headed. They want to be more engaged in the day-to-day activities of the residents in the cities they are in," says McStravick, who adds that the development of a music center next to the facility is in the works. (For more Houston hotel news and venue suggestions, see our destination guide.)

> Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, D.C. 

The last thing convention-center officials want surrounding their gleaming facilities are empty storefronts and a lack of hip spots for dining and relaxing. Faced with this situation in Washington, D.C., hard work and a growing city have started to invigorate the Shaw neighborhood that is home to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, with more improvements on the way.

"We have exceeded our expectations for the type of retail we've been able to attract," says Greg O'Dell, president and CEO of Events DC, the convention and sports authority that owns and operates the center, among other facilities. Settling into the ground-floor retail space of the convention center itself is Smoked and Stacked, a sandwich spot featuring house-cured pastrami from Marjorie Meek-Bradley, a former Top Chef finalist. Scheduled to open there this spring is the Unconventional Diner from chef David Deshaies, who currently heads up the kitchen at Central in D.C. His concept will be a pastry shop by day, traditional dinner spot at night. For attendees who want to work off all this delicious food, the Urban Athletic Club is opening this month.

O'Dell says this is just the beginning for the neighborhood and the center itself. "What we're working on now is revisiting the facade and the experience people have walking around the building, which is almost a mile around," he notes. "There are a lot of opportunities for us to add artwork and connection points for people to enjoy. We're in the design phase now and hope to start work in six to nine months."

Simultaneously, upgrades will be coming inside of the building, to create more places for social gatherings and to give participants places to network; WiFi capacity already has been ramped up. Plans call for a mix of permanent and movable furniture to give meeting planners the flexibility to set up unique experiences for their shows. A consultant and an architect have come up with some conceptual designs, and options are being weighed.

"Our customers have choices, and people are looking for authenticity and experiences," O'Dell says. "We have to make sure we're mindful of that and create offerings that are unique to D.C., leveraging all the assets to make this experience for our customers."