Meetings & Conventions - On Campus - December
Making The Leap
What to expect when your growing show moves from hotel to
By Sarah J.F. Braley
he 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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
“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
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
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
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.
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.”
INAUGURATING ATTENDEESThe planner isn’t the
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.”
If 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.
WORDS OF WISDOMOnce the convention
has been chosen, planners should take some
proactive measures to prevent show-time glitches.
“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
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.”
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