What makes a great convention city?

 —  Article by JLL Staff Reporter
The Century Link Convention Center in Omaha, Nebraska is host to many large concerts, conventions, and sporting events
Image credit: Shutterstock

The days of major cities owning the convention center market are over.

While middle market venues will never be able to offer the glitz or glamour of Chicago or Las Vegas, many smaller cities are finding alternative ways to get a foot in the door by proving their ability to compete with new facilities, accessible airports, efficient transportation systems and compelling entertainment options.

Cleveland, Ohio is one of these blossoming convention markets. When Cleveland welcomed the Republican National Convention (RNC) in July, it proved that a Midwestern city once known more for its grit than its glitz could successfully host a high-profile national political convention. A one-time manufacturing powerhouse, Cleveland was hit hard by the de-industrializing of the U.S. economy and has labored in recent years to revitalize its downtown. Not commonly known as a “convention city”, securing a deal with the RNC gave Cleveland a taste of this trillion-dollar industry, and in doing so, has created a blueprint for other aspiring convention cities to emulate.

“Major economic and policy centers such as Chicago, New York and Washington, DC offer obvious choices for convention planners, as do popular tourist destinations such as Las Vegas and Orlando,” says Dan Fenton, an Executive Vice President with JLL’s Hotels & Hospitality Group. “But the convention market is huge, and many veteran convention attendees have voiced their desire to try out new cities that they haven’t visited over and over again. This call for new locales has opened a wealth of opportunities for smaller cities to grab a greater piece of the pie.”

With a new convention complex, a plentiful supply of hotel and retail space, and a downtown center going through a renaissance, Cleveland followed a recipe for success that can be emulated by peer cities. In fact, other small cities like Omaha, Nebraska and Kansas City, Missouri are taking note of Cleveland’s entrance into the convention market and are ramping up their own efforts to get their foot in the door. With that in mind, here are a few ingredients that can help small cities compete for the big economic boost offered by major conventions:

1. Suitable facilities

One way to make a city stand out is by constructing top-of-the-line convention facilities. A major contributor to Cleveland’s winning bid for the RNC was the construction of their brand new convention center complex – a 358,000 square foot behemoth equipped with meeting rooms, exhibit space, and an attached 600-room Hilton hotel. Moreover, the city increased its hotel room inventory by 9.8 percent to 23,682 rooms in just two years.

Aside from square footage, new facilities also offer new technology, and typically step up environmental sustainability features. Cobo Center in Detroit, Michigan–another mid-size, Midwestern U.S. city–boasts an in-house TV studio and multiple video walls. The 723,000 square foot exhibit center is also embracing energy efficiency, recycling, composting, water conservation and other green initiatives, earning it external recognition such as an APEX certification from the Green Meeting Industry Council.

2. Airport accessibility

Airport access can be a huge boon to a city’s convention dreams—or a detractor, if the airport and its location don’t make it easy for convention attendees. Smaller suburban cities such as Rosemont, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago) and Grapevine, Texas (a suburb of Dallas) crack the top 50 convention cities list due to their proximity to major airports. At the same time, what some cities lack in proximity to airports can be made up in the size of those airports and how much traffic they can handle.

Although visitors to Chicago may have an hour-long commute to downtown from either O’Hare or Midway, the city makes up for this by having not one, but two international airports that increase the number of direct flights for attendees, and can also accommodate a surge of international travelers for a convention.

3. Trains, lanes and monorails

Carefully planned public transportation is key to accommodating the large influx of visitors that descend on a city during a convention. Cities with efficient transit systems and multiple avenues of transportation have a leg up on less accessible venues. A 2013 study conducted by the American Public Transportation Association found those with rail access from airports to hotels have an advantage over “non-rail cities” in terms of increased economic vitality and competitiveness to attract large meetings and events.

Smaller locations, such as Indianapolis, can often combat this transportation deficit by promoting themselves as walkable cities, or by offering airport pickup and transportation between convention centers and hotels.

4. Entertainment options

Keeping visitors entertained can be challenging for a smaller city. Entertainment options are a large reason why venues such as Las Vegas and Orlando are such hot spots for conventions – they can provide endless activities for professionals and family guests alike.

But smaller cities can offer unique entertainment options as well, from wineries and golf, to nightlife and trendy restaurants. Charlotte, North Carolina is slowly becoming known as a leading convention city due to its reputation as a top spot to be for millennials. While facilities, airport and transportation access are the basic framework for providing a good convention city, the ability to offer high quality restaurants, bars, shopping and other entertainment options may be what separates the good from great.

“Other cities looking to emulate Cleveland’s transformation to a top convention spot can take away the lesson that investments in facilities and infrastructure reap substantial rewards,” according to Andrew Batson, Director of Research for JLL in the Great Lakes region. “Cleveland is in the middle of an economic and social resurgence, and the RNC spotlighted how mid-sized cities can successfully attract a greater share of the convention market.”

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