Some are as busy as major airports with hundreds of thousands passing through each year and, just like airports, they were built to last more than to adapt.
Conference centers are the workhorses of the convention industry but, in a world where new technology loses its value almost as fast as a new car when it drives off the lot, most face a formidable task – learning how to adjust with the times in a world that changes in the trite, but true “blink of an eye.”
It's a tough undertaking even in the best of times, but one made especially daunting by strained to non-existent budgets, multi-year timelines and business travelers who are becoming accustomed to having the ease of technology at their fingertips.
From San Diego to Chicago, three major conference centers are taking up the challenge and providing lessons in growth.
A three-year renovation of St. Louis' America's Center provides business travelers with a fresh $48-million-dollar new look. But, while groups will discover upgraded features everywhere, they won't find any technological improvements (at least beyond new security cameras). Instead, renovations focused on these three areas:
- Sustainability. New energy efficient cooling towers, boilers and air handling units offer a better indoor environment while reducing costs.
- Mobility. Eight new escalators and upgraded elevators now provide convention-goers with "improved reliability." 700 new directional signs are a bright eye-popping green and won't fade into the background like their predecessors.
- Design. Lastly, there's definitely something underfoot throughout the new and improved America's Center - new carpet. 23,000 square yards of it. Additional design updates include new air walls and renovated restrooms featuring new finishes, fixtures, lighting and décor.
With a goal of luring future business, Chicago's Tinley Park Convention Center embarked on a one-year, $16.5-million expansion in April 2010. The project will double the center's size, allowing city officials to position it as a credible contender for close to 80 percent of the country's conventions. Another forward-looking move - the expansion will bring WiFi connectivity to attendees.
Here's a look at the improvements, by the numbers:
- 33,000 sq. ft. of new exhibit & function space for a total of just over 58,000 sq. ft.
- 250 new hospitality jobs will be created
- $265 million in additional revenue each year for surrounding area
- 450 extra parking spaces for a total of 1,500
The San Diego Convention Center is developing expansion plans that would increase the facility's size by 33 precent. Progress is slowly accelerating with the land now officially acquired, public forums in progress and reviews of design firms underway.
The City of San Diego expects to spend some $750 million on the project, but hopes it will yield returns almost equal to that - on an annual basis. It also expects the expansion to create almost 7,000 new jobs.
While still in the design process, the new and improved center will likely add nearly 400,000 square feet to its size. If all goes as hoped, it will also boast LEED silver certification through such potential elements as a "green" roof, light sensors and an on-site water treatment center.
City officials hope to debut the expansion to the business world by mid-2015 but express cautious optimism, stating "any number of unforeseeable factors could influence the timeframe."
A previous expansion was completed in 2001, but the continued popularity of San Diego as a tourist and business destination quickly caused demand to eclipse suppy. A Mayor's Task Force reviewing the new call for growth discovered almost 40 percent of potential clients do not book the San Diego Convention Center currently due to lack of availability or space.