December 01, 2000
Meetings & Conventions - On Campus - December 2000

Current Issue
December 2000
Making The Leap

What to expect when your growing show moves from hotel to convention center

By Sarah J.F. Braley

  The Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials will go into its first convention center next April. It’s not that the Washington-based group has grown to thousands of members only about 250 people attend the annual meeting but the show uses about 40,000 square feet of meeting space, which is hard to come by at hotels. “I’m new at this, a senior planner going into a new arena,” says Katrina Taylor Hankins, training staff associate and meeting planner for the organization. “I’m worried about being swallowed up by a large center.”

The leap from hotel to convention center can be a difficult one. “This is an awkward, uncomfortable situation for many groups,” says Jim Daggett, CMP, of the Chicago-based meetings consulting firm JRDaggett & Associates. “Many planners have a fear about working with convention centers, particularly of the unknown. They might question the hidden costs that typically would be covered by a hotel like electrical, cleaning, additional setup charges and worry about being a little fish in a big pond.”

The following are some pointers to ease the transition.

Contracted terms
Hotels often are flexible in negotiations. But because convention centers usually are government-owned, there’s less wiggle room, says industry legal expert Jonathan Howe, Esq., of Howe & Hutton in Chicago. Also, he notes, “There’s more red tape.”

Room to grow: Washington State Convention and Trade Center

There is no standard convention center contract; they differ from center to center. “Don’t expect if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all,” says Howe. Also, they generally are very difficult to negotiate. Want a clause requiring the center to repair wear and tear on the building? Prefer to alter the deposit schedule slightly? Good luck.

But some centers now will bend a bit in other areas, says Howe. In the past, a center wouldn’t sign a contract until a year out. Now, many will sign multiyear contracts for major events.

With hotels, agreements cover room blocks, room rates, dates and use of meeting rooms. Convention center contracts are strictly lease agreements, covering rental of the space. For food and beverage, A/V, production and other services, planners contract separately with those providers, many of whom have exclusive deals with the convention center.

The contract language can be very stringent, “as if you were going to buy the building rather than just use it,” says Howe. Sometimes, a provision will require the organization to restore the premises to the same condition or better than when they took possession of it.

There are insurance concerns, as well. Indemnification runs only one way to the convention center. If someone gets hurt at the center, the venue will look to your organization to cover it. You probably will be obligated to provide insurance to the center or have certain insurance limits.

Suzette Eaddy, CMP, director of conferences for the National Minority Supplier Development Council in New York City, has been working with convention centers since 1984, including 10 for the NMSDC. The group’s annual meeting has a 500-booth trade show and attracts 5,000 attendees. She notes that if using a center is contingent on the availability of the hotels and vice versa, contracts with all facilities should have a clause allowing you to cancel if one or the other burns down, closes or is otherwise unavailable.

What it costs
While hotels make their money on sleeping rooms and often give away meeting space, convention centers don’t have that luxury. “We have to charge for meeting and exhibit space,” says Michael McQuade, director of sales and marketing for Seattle’s Washington State Convention and Trade Center, which often caters to first-time users whose groups have outgrown hotels. “Sometimes we’ll talk to customers and remind them that, because of the growth of their program, there are additional costs.”

Generally, groups pay for exhibit space by the square foot, and meeting space might be thrown in, depending on how much exhibit space is used. Examples of costs are 15 cents a square foot in San Antonio, 20 cents in Las Vegas and Denver, and $1.30 (lower level) to $1.55 (upper level) at New York City’s Jacob K. Javits Center. Many centers also have a minimum daily rate organizations must pay when they are not using a minimum square footage.

“You can spend as much as $100,000 just renting the space. I’m not talking about the food, just the space,” points out Suzette Eaddy of the NMSDC.

Southwestern chic: Albequerque Convention Center While working for the National Association of Federal Credit Unions in Washington, D.C., several years ago, Shirley Knowles went through the process of easing her annual meeting of about 3,000 attendees into a convention center. Now working for Management Options, an association management company also based in D.C., Knowles anticipates having to go through similar growing pains again with a current client.

“In a hotel, there is so much that is free,” says Knowles, director of conventions and meetings. “At a convention center, if anything gets changed, you’re charged labor.” For example, the initial setup of the room is included in the rental cost, but if you want it changed around for another day, expect to pay.

Then there are the extras charged at some centers, like electricity, air conditioning and water. “One year we were in a city where it was really hot, and the agreement only covered air conditioning for a certain amount of time,” says Eaddy. “We had to pay an exorbitant rate for extra time.” She also tells of meeting in cities where, no matter how many people you have in the convention center at the time, you have to pay for a nurse to be on site, usually at more than $20 an hour. In the past, Eaddy also has had to pay for water for her staff.

There are some ways to get breaks. “If yours is a large enough piece of business, the city will want you to come,” says Knowles. “You can ask the hotels for help with meeting room charges at the convention center or with shuttle-bus service. Or try to get a rebate on some of the rooms to offset shuttle-bus or convention center costs.”

New providers
Planners entering the convention center world for the first time must now work with a number of vendors they didn’t encounter at the hotel. For instance, when the meeting is no longer self- contained, attendees have to be shuttled to and from the convention center, which means dealing with a transportation company and learning which flow pattern works best with the group. Transportation companies are well-versed in this process, helping planners figure out whether they want buses running at set intervals all day long or perhaps just in the morning and late afternoon, to make it harder for attendees to leave the premises.

Then there are the decorators. “You don’t have the same ambience for meal functions in a convention center as you do in a hotel,” says Eaddy. “You have to bring in pipe and drape to make it look like something. Some people bring in chandeliers.”

For some planners, this also might be their first encounter with unions. Dealing with organized workers at a center is no different than dealing with them at hotels, you just might be using a different set of unions. But there are a number of points to consider.

Convention centers that are union houses will charge extra for move-in and move-out days and during setup costs that need to be figured into the budget.

“You have to be very careful with the show schedule in terms of the length of the work day,” says Mark McCulley, CMP, who spent 15 years negotiating convention center contracts for the Worldwide Church of God and is now an independent planner. “Work over it with your local steward, who can help you schedule the group so workers won’t be there 12 and 13 hours. You don’t want to run over eight hours plus lunch.” Overtime for those extra hours will be charged at time-and-a-half or double time, depending on the union contract.

McCulley, president of Mark of Excellence Meetings and Events in Eagle Rock, Calif., adds it’s important to know when contracts throughout the city not just at the convention center are due to expire. One problem can have a domino effect, he notes. For instance, if hotel workers are striking, members of another union might show their support by refusing to show up for work, even at the convention center.

Making choices
When selecting a site for a group that is first leaving the confines of a hotel, consider small or mid-size convention centers. The large facilities in cities like Las Vegas, Orlando and Chicago might be overwhelming.

If your group won’t fill the facility, find out who else will be in-house. Says Hankins of the waste-management officials’ association, “I don’t want to be next to a large exhibit of 300 to 400 displays. I don’t want to be there on someone’s move-in day. I don’t want to be on top of a loud rock concert.” A city like Albuquerque, N.M., is perfect for Hankins, who needs more meeting space than sleeping rooms. The Albuquerque Convention Center has about 168,000 square feet of exhibit space but only 900 or so commitable rooms within walking distance.

The image of the facility, in terms of reputation and aesthetics, also is important. “People think we are a big, cold concrete box staffed by civil servants and with food categorized as mystery meat with brown sauce,” says McQuade of Seattle’s center. “We’re very lucky that this facility is a very attractive building. The preconceived impression that people have of a convention center is changed right from the start.”

A city’s convention and visitors bureau should be able to provide valuable support. For example, Albuquerque’s CVB helps match planners with all the suppliers they will need, says Ed Pulsifer, vice president of convention sales and marketing. “We become the liaison,” he says. “Then the meeting planner doesn’t have to spend countless hours on the phone.”

Once the initial hurdles are cleared, the event can thrive, says Knowles. “If your meeting has grown, why are you frustrating yourself to make it happen in a hotel when there are beautiful convention centers with beautiful space?” To be comfortable with the differences, she adds, “All you have to do is do it once.”

The planner isn’t the only one who is thrown into a new situation when dealing with convention centers. Attendees need to be helped through the transition as well.

Hold the entire meeting at the convention center, advises Shirley Knowles, director of conventions and meetings for Washington, D.C.-based Management Options. “Bite the bullet and go for it,” she says. “Splitting the event between the hotel and the center makes for a disjointed meeting. People don’t know where they’re supposed to be.”

PlantsIf decor is lacking, take pains to make the center as inviting as possible, Knowles suggests. Bring in more plants and create conversational seating areas, if the budget will allow. The ambience is important, agrees G.A. Taylor Fernley, president and CEO of the Philadelphia-based association management firm Fernley and Fernley. “People fear they are going into a stadium-type setting and won’t have the personalized environment they have at a hotel,” he adds.

Have staff members stationed throughout the facility to direct wandering attendees, Fernley suggests. Good signage and maps are no substitute. “People like to be attended to in a new environment,” he says.


Once the convention center has been chosen, planners should take some proactive measures to prevent show-time glitches.

G.A. Taylor Fernley“Walk the halls,” says G.A. Taylor Fernley, president and CEO of Fernley and Fernley, an association management firm in Philadelphia. “You have to get a feel for what the group’s issues are going to be. You can even take some members with you to get their comments about the building.”

During the site inspection, get feedback from staff running the event that’s under way at the time. “We get some pretty candid assessments,” Fernley says. “We ask what they would do differently now that they know the facility.”

Wear your most comfortable shoes, because the distance you’ll cover in a convention center is likely to be greater than in a hotel. “You are going to walk a lot,” says Mark McCulley, CMP, president of Mark of Excellence Meetings and Events in Eagle Rock, Calif.

Check your two-way radios in advance, at maximum distance, including with one staff member in the convention center and another in the hotel (if it is nearby). “You might be better off renting or using cell phones,” McCulley says. “The last thing you want is to be in the convention center hollering for your assistant, and you can’t raise him on the radio.”


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