Once generic and removed from their surroundings, many convention centers are striving to reflect and showcase their locations instead of shutting them out. New and expanded facilities are bringing the outdoors in, celebrating local cuisine and forging stronger partnerships with their communities.
“Many cities are realizing they can no longer develop convention centers in a vacuum if they want to stay competitive,” said David O’Neal, chairman and founder of Conventional Wisdom, a convention center consultancy. “These days it’s all about offering a complete package where the convention center is part of a vibrant district where you also have great dining, nightlife and hotels nearby. You see this happening in places like Nashville and Austin where the convention centers are just steps from live music clubs, in San Antonio where the convention center is part of River Walk, and in San Diego where the center is close to Seaport Village. Attendees really like access to indigenous things.”
O’Neal also noted that convention centers themselves are be coming places where attendees can enjoy aspects of the destination right within the building, offering outdoor plazas with city views, food service with regional flair and design elements tied into local culture and style.
Here’s a look at how some new and renovated convention centers are putting these concepts into practice.
Moscone Convention Center, San Francisco
Moscone is undergoing a major renovation and expansion of its original North and South buildings, with completion scheduled for fall 2018. Among the goals is to better integrate the center, which opened in 1981 as a primarily underground facility, with the burgeoning Yerba Buena district. In recent years, the district has become home to many of the city’s prime attractions, restaurants and hotels.
Noting that convention centers have “traditionally been conceived as sprawling, inward-oriented black boxes,” Craig Hartman, design partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the architectural firm behind the project, said the renovation objective is “to turn the traditional convention center inside out” by opening it up to its surroundings.
When work is completed, Moscone will include not only a 50,000-square-foot ballroom and other new meeting spaces, but 108,000 square feet of light-filled prefunction lobbies with views of the city and Yerba Buena Gardens. There will also be additional outdoor terraces for receptions, wider sidewalks, larger crosswalks between buildings and open plazas with public art.
Oregon Convention Center, Portland
For Portland’s Oregon Convention Center, a priority in recent years is to give attendees a taste of the city’s local food and beverage products during meal functions as well as during breaks. Concessions in the facility include Portland Roasting, which serves organic coffee from its local branches as well as light snacks, and Stir Lounge and Bistro, a full-service restaurant with a menu focused exclusively on local foods and beverages, including craft beers and Oregon wines.
The center’s in-house catering team, Pacificwild, is led by chef Chris Purdue, who recently won a Pro Chef II certification from the Culinary Institute of America. Catering menus routinely feature fresh Pacific salmon as well as meats and produce from local farms.
“Portland has earned a reputation as an international ‘foodie’ destination so it is fitting that our guests enjoy the best of the best when they visit the convention center,” said Scott Cruikshank, general manager.
Huntington Convention Center, Cleveland
Cleveland’s Huntington Convention Center opened in 2013 in a prime downtown location close to eight meetings-friendly hotels, dining and nightlife in the East Fourth District and attractions along the Lake Erie waterfront. The center is also connected to the new Global Center for Health Innovation, a facility with themed areas devoted to healthcare technology and education.
While Cleveland has long been associated with healthcare research, thanks to the Cleveland Clinic and other institutions, the convention center is also connected to a lesser-known focus of the city: urban farming. In partnership with Levy Restaurants, the LEED Gold-certified facility, which has a green roof, maintains its own on-site farm that includes herb and vegetable gardens, egg-laying chickens and beehives. Ingredients from the farm are used in dishes served during convention banquets.
“The urban farm scene is huge in Cleveland and the convention center, along with our schools, community organizations and local chefs, is heavily involved with it,” said Mike Burns, senior vice president for convention sales and services for Destination Cleveland. “One result is convention center food that is really fresh and amazing.”
KI Convention Center, Green Bay, Wis.
When a $23 million, 70,200-square-foot expansion of the KI Convention Center was unveiled 18 months ago, the result was not only additional meeting space but also an expansive outdoor plaza for events and panoramic views of the Fox River and downtown Green Bay.
“We have a beautiful riverfront and we really wanted to take advantage of that with a design that gives people a sense of where they are,” said Beth Ulatowski, director of sales for the Greater Green Bay CVB. “Another positive for attendees is that there’s so much within walking distance, even a trail that goes on for miles.”