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.”
Miami Beach Convention Center
When a $615 million expansion and makeover is completed in 2018, the Miami Beach Convention Center will truly reflect its vibrant South Beach location right down to its Latin-inspired fusion banquet cuisine and fashion-forward staff uniforms, according to Rolando Aedo, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for the Greater Miami CVB.
“Our primary focus is to take the excitement of the Miami brand, which is known globally, and make it resonate throughout the convention center,” he said. “Miami is home to some of the world’s best chefs, famous fashion houses and important contemporary art shows like Art Basel, so we want our touch points to replicate this.”
Mindful of its proximity to the beach, prime shopping areas and Art Deco hotel district, the center expansion is designed to put the facility more in sync with its surroundings, he added. Along with such additions as a 60,000-square-foot ballroom, the center will feature 12 acres of surrounding parks and landscaped areas, and $6.5 million in commissioned public art throughout the building.
“We’ll have outdoor areas for receptions so groups can take advantage of our weather,” Aedo said. “There will be sleek lines that are modern with a tropical flair, plus a great use of color and light. Creating a sense of place is number one.”
Oklahoma City Convention Center
Evoking a sense of place and set in a location where attendees have easy access to city attractions are objectives behind plans for the new Oklahoma City Convention Center, said Mike Carrier, president of the Oklahoma City CVB.
Scheduled to break ground next January and open in early 2020, the new center will have a 30,000-square-foot ballroom and 200,000 square feet of exhibit space. It will be located on the south end of downtown Oklahoma City adjacent to the Chesapeake Energy Arena sports and concert venue, and a 70-acre park that is under development. The park will offer a cafe, lake and nature trails. A new streetcar system will link the center to the Bricktown Entertainment District and other areas around the city.
“We took a holistic approach before planning the project, making sure it’s located close to things attendees can enjoy and that there is easy access to other areas,” Carrier said. “It will be easy for delegates to go to a game or concert or get to the clubs and restaurants in Bricktown or Midtown. The site is also close to the Boathouse District, an Olympic training site for canoeing and kayaking, so attendees will even be able to go canoeing and even white-water rafting.”
The design of the new center, which will feature large windows facing the park and a terra cotta palette inspired by the Oklahoma landscape, will give attendees a sense of where they are, he added.
“It will be a very modern building that makes the most of natural light. When attendees walk out of any meeting room, they will see the outdoors,” Carrier said.
Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, San Antonio
After unveiling a $325 million expansion a year ago, the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center emerged as an integral part of River Walk, San Antonio’s iconic serpentine riverfront lined with gardens, restaurants, hotels and historic attractions. The transformation brought such features as walls of windows framing views of the river and downtown, an indoor-outdoor pizza kitchen on the riverfront and a spacious wraparound balcony off the Texas-sized Stars at Night ballroom. Further reinforcing its sense of place are the Hall of Texans, with its life-size bronze statues of famous figures, and the Lonesome Dove Room, filled with dark leather furnishings and Western art.
“When you walk into our building, you know you are in San Antonio,” said Casandra Matej, executive director of the San Antonio CVB. “We’re built over the river and it was important to incorporate our surroundings into the space.”
As Houston’s completely reimagined convention district, Avenida is a vibrant, locally inspired social, entertainment and business hub.
The campus includes Discovery Green park, George R. Brown Convention Center (GRB), situated between three professional sports venues (Minute Maid Park, Toyota Center and BBVA Stadium), and two hotels that are directly connected to the GRB: Marriott Marquis and Hilton-Americas. Meanwhile, the GRB has a new grand entrance that connects it with the plaza and park across the street.
Avenida is a magnet for locals, leisure visitors and convention-goers, with business venues, entertainment such as festivals and other events, major public art installations and restaurants such as Bud’s Pitmaster BBQ, Cueva (“wine cave”), Grotto (Italian), Xochi (Mexican-inspired) and Kulture (African/Caribbean).
Kentucky International Convention Center, Louisville
Currently closed for a $207 million expansion, the Kentucky International Convention Center is set to emerge in 2018 with a new 40,000-squre-foot ballroom, exhibition space increased to 200,000 square feet, LEED Silver certification and elements reflecting Louisville’s unique heritage, according to Cleo Battle, executive vice president of the Louisville CVB.
“The center will be more tied to the fabric of the community and our brand—really reflecting what we’re known for, whether it’s bourbon or horseracing,” he said. “This will be reflected throughout the building through historic photographs, artwork, the colors and even the floor design.”
Javits Convention Center, New York
While its location on Manhattan’s Far West Side was once lackluster, the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center now finds itself in the middle of one of the city’s most resurgent neighborhoods. Recent developments just steps from the center include the first phase of Hudson Yards, a 17 million-square-foot residential, office and retail complex, the extension of the High Line elevated park and a new subway stop that is part of an expansion of the MTA’s 7 line.
“There’s a transformation going on around the convention center, which is giving attendees more to do and planners more of a reason to book meetings in our city,” said Jerry Cito, senior vice president of development for New York & Co. “It’s becoming a vibrant new neighborhood that is now easy to get to from other parts of the city.”
Javits itself is undergoing a transformation, having broken ground in December on a long-anticipated $1 billion expansion. Set for completion in 2021, it will include a new hall offering 500,000 square feet of exhibition space on one level. The center recently completed a $450 million renovation that featured the installation of a green roof, the largest in the Northeast.
“The renovation has been very well received by customers as well as the community,” Cito said. “They really got behind the green roof and other sustainability aspects.”