What's the Next Move?
The 79 mid-sized convention centers in North America have prime exhibit space ranging from 125,000 to 349,999 square feet and comprise 26% of the 305 total convention centers in the region, according to Trade Show Executive’s Annual Report on Mid-Sized Convention Centers. The largest mid-sized center in North America is the Expo Bancomer Santa Fe in Mexico City with 348,750 square feet (sf).
In all, 69 of these facilities (87.3%) are in the U.S., five are in Canada (6.3%) and five are in Mexico (6.3%). Collec-tively, these convention centers bring the total square feet of prime exhibit space at mid-sized convention centers in North America to 16,092,989 square feet. The largest mid-sized center in the U.S. is Portland Metropolitan Exposition Center in Portland, OR at 333,000 square feet. The smallest of all the North American mid-sized facilities is The Concourse Exhibition Center in San Francisco at 125,000 sf.
Across the U.S., officials at mid-sized convention centers from Cincinnati, Chicago and Seattle said that overall business seems to be picking up, possibly in response to a more positive economic outlook. “National associations are booking further out and consumer shows are generating higher attendance and spending,” said Ric Booth, general manager of Cincinnati’s Duke Energy Center, which ranks No. 32 on this year’s list of mid-sized centers. That facility garners a lot of national association business and stages about 20 consumer shows each year, Booth said.
Michael McQuade, director of sales and marketing for the mid-sized Washington State Convention Center in Seattle, said the center, which ranks No. 17 among mid-sized centers this year with 236,700 square feet of prime exhibit space, has booked more corporate business this year and will host the most medical conventions it has seen since 2005. “Things are good here,” he said, with the city benefitting from a mix of national, state and regional business.
Nevertheless, booking lead times remain short from coast to coast for mid-sized convention centers. “Shorter seems to be the term of the day,” said Courtney Dyer, general manager of the Virginia Beach Convention Center, which offers 150,000 square feet of prime space. The city’s mainstays are amateur sporting events and military events. Dyer said the military sector is booking in a “much shorter window” and that attendance numbers in that sector are down due
in part to new restrictions on govern-ment participation in trade shows.
Similar patterns are evident in Texas, where Charles Mayer, director of conven-tion sales for the No. 11-ranked Fort Worth Convention Center, said short lead times mean that large groups that used to book three to five years out now book two years out. Government groups are booking even closer to their events, Mayer said. “They’re booking 90 to 120 days out — there’s a lot of uncertainty,” he said.
Mayer said upticks in attendance for the center’s core constituents of multi-level marketing group conventions likely will mean the facility still will post solid numbers for this year.
In Long Beach, CA, short-term bookings are a boon for the No. 8-ranked Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center, according to Ellen Schwartz, senior director of sales. “We have excellent short-term bookings with many coming in the year for the year,” she said. “That helps fill in gaps.”
Long Beach, which offers 270,000 square feet of prime space, hosts events such as the Imprinted Sportswear Show, International Salon and Spa Expo and on the consumer side, the Progressive International Motorcycle Show and the Los Angeles Travel and Adventure Show.
Stringent fiscal guidelines that may further restrict both the number of meetings and attendance at government and military-related events were mentioned as a concern by nearly every mid-sized convention center executive interviewed for this story. One group scheduled for a March convention in Fort Worth still didn’t know its new guidelines in mid-January, Mayer said.
“The government and military have been the bread and butter of our center,” said Eric Blanc, director of sales, marketing and convention services at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, FL, which has 200,000 square feet of prime space. Blanc said one Department of Defense group canceled 45 days out when organizers were told to suspend nonessential travel and training. “With the recent turmoil in Washington, that market is more uncertain,” he said.
Washington State Convention Center’s McQuade said every event has some level of government employee attendees, including a conference on AIDS last year for which some participants had to get approval from their government agencies to attend. “The Association of Military Surgeons is coming this year . . . (that) will be a good test of the policy,” he said.
Over the past decade, convention centers of all sizes have faced a demand for more meeting and breakout space as conventions and trade shows added more educational elements to the mix. Older, smaller and mid-sized convention centers often have been hard-pressed to meet this demand. “Our last expansion was in 2006,” said Duke Energy Convention Center’s Booth. “With a crystal ball, we would have added more meeting space then,” he said. “We’d likely put meeting space at the top of the wish list for future expansion,” he added.
Nevertheless, those who operate mid-sized facilities have bright spots. At Chicago’s Navy Pier, operated by SMG, there’s been an increase in smaller consumer start-ups and tech/app expos targeted to a younger demographic, according to Tony Camarillo, senior director of sales and events. “We’re also seeing a slight increase in market research events such as technology, transportation and new product launches looking for public and private space,” he said. Navy Pier ranks No. 43 on this year’s list.
Mayer is pleased to see attendance increases in the programs staged by multi-level marketing groups such as Mary Kay Cosmetics that are regulars in Fort Worth.
Tampa has seen an uptick in medical events at its convention center which has 200,000 square feet of prime space. “Medical is thriving,” said Blanc. “We’re looking at targeting partner events with a new medical center training facility,” he said.
Green issues don’t appear to dominate the booking conversation at many mid-sized centers, though Tampa’s Blanc said about 25% do have some green requirements in their RFPs. Virginia Beach has a LEED gold rating; Washington State has a LEED silver rating, “but it’s not the only factor groups consider,” Virginia Beach’s Dyer said.
McQuade said that’s not the case in Seattle, where it is the primary factor for a few groups that meet at the Washington State Convention Center because of its sustainable practices.
State of the Middle
U.S. mid-sized facilities offer an aggregate 13,572,349 square feet, or 84% of North American space. Canada’s mid-sized facilities total 1,264,500 square feet — 8% of the total — and mid-sized centers in Mexico comprise 1,256,140 square feet for the remaining 8% of the total.
In addition to Portland Metropolitan Exposition Center and Expo Bancomer Santa Fe, North American convention centers with 300,000 or more square feet of space are: the American Royal Center/Kemper Arena in Kansas City, the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, Vancouver Convention Centre in Vancouver, BC and the Baltimore Convention Center.
The average (mean) square footage of prime exhibit space for mid-size convention centers in North America is 203,709 square feet. The closest single facility to that average size is the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu with 204,000 square feet. Among the largest events scheduled for that facility in 2013 is the Honolulu Fest, which will draw approximately 15,000 attendees and the American Psychological Association Annual Convention, which expects 10,000 delegates.
The mean square footage for mid-sized convention centers in the U.S. alone is 196,701 square feet. The Denver Merchandise Mart Complex with 197,000 square feet most closely represents that average. Denver Mart hosts the Denver Gift Show, The Denver Apparel & Accessory Market and The Denver International Western/English Apparel & Equipment Market and other trade and public events.
The median (midpoint) of prime exhibit space for all North American facilities is 195,320 square feet, represented by Cincinnati’s Duke Energy Convention Center. That center was built in 1967 — long before green issues were at the forefront of American consciousness — but the facility has taken some green steps such as adding solar panels on the roof that get attention from some groups, Booth said. In 2011, the center hosted GovEnergy Workshops & Tradeshow, whose attendees were interested in the solar addition, Booth said.
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