|By Susan Feyder, Star Tribune,
MinneapolisMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Oct. 26, 2007 - Minneapolis' convention and visitors bureau is about to undergo a transition next week with the departure of longtime CEO Greg Ortale. He recently resigned from Meet Minneapolis to take a similar job with the convention and visitors bureau in Houston.
Ortale joined the Minneapolis bureau while the convention center was under construction, and he oversaw a $207 million expansion completed in 2002 that included adding meeting rooms, an auditorium and increasing the exhibition space from 280,000 to 480,000 square feet.
He has seen the city attract major events, including a Super Bowl, an NCAA Final Four and next year's Republican National Convention.
Here are excerpts from an interview with Ortale.
Q What goals did you have when you took the job here, and which ones have you seen accomplished?
A What attracted me to the job in the first place was that the city had taken a courageous step in putting together a group of taxes to [go toward] building a convention center hotel project to really get into the national trade show market. I wanted to be part of that, to help establish Minneapolis as a national player. I think that we have accomplished that. The building itself is widely recognized as one of the best-designed convention centers in the country.
Q Bookings for the number of conventions and room nights both were up sharply in 2006 -- what are the main reasons for that? How are booking levels running so far this year?
A We increased business by shifting our emphasis in doing more, but smaller groups. This year, bookings are ahead of last year through the first three quarters.
Q The convention center underwent a major expansion in 2002. What were your goals in doing that, and have they been accomplished? Specifically, how has that helped the city attract more events? Are there groups we weren't getting before that we're getting now?
A When the original convention center was built, there wasn't enough tax revenue to build everything that was wanted, so the city just built what it could. The expansion really completed the original vision. It's amazing that plans from 1984 were still good in 2002. With the expansion, the ability to have five exhibition halls gave us a lot more flexibility to host multiple groups simultaneously, as well as host very large groups. The first group we booked after the expansion was the Screenprinting and Graphic Imaging Association, a group that had wanted to come here for decades but hadn't been able to because we didn't have a big enough building.
Q The past couple of years have seen a boom in downtown hotel development, with some hotels opened and others on the way. Does that change your organization's view that we need a 1,200-room hotel?
A Several cities have built large hotels adjacent to their convention centers [with public financing support]. That includes some of our key competitors like Indianapolis, Denver, St. Louis, Austin [Texas]. A feasibility study that we did in 2004 recommended 1,800 more rooms close to the convention center. A lot of the hotels that have been built are smaller, 250 rooms or less. We need something quite a bit larger, like 1,200 rooms.
Q There seems to be little support for that project. Why?
A Actually, I think that's changed, and the support is starting to come from a source you wouldn't expect. The hotel community itself is starting to realize that they would rather have one big hotel that expands our marketplace than a bunch of little hotels that move the same business around. There is interest from Hennepin County for doing something with the Century Center block across the street from the convention center.
Q How much would a project like that cost?
A Probably $300 million. A combination of public and private [funding] is the most common financing option for these types of projects.
Q What could we do if we had a facility like that?
A In our study we identified over 100 groups that we have lost over a period of time. There are also groups that we haven't even approached because they've told us to not even come and talk to them until we have an additional convention headquarters hotel.
Q What kind of opportunities are there to gain convention business as a result of the Republican National Convention?
A One of the main opportunities is to dispel some of the myths that exist about Minneapolis-St. Paul -- that we're flyover land, that we're white, that there's nothing to do. This is an opportunity to do repositioning of the Twin Cities as a place to live, work and recreate.
Q What about the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge? Has that posed any difficulties in marketing Minneapolis for conventions and trade shows?
A It certainly had a perception problem that we had to deal with right away. We sent out all sort of messages to the marketplace explaining that the majority of our infrastructure, like the convention center and hotels, are to the south of the bridge. We also went to a trade show and got that message out.
Q If you could put together a "to-do" list for your successor, what would be on it?
A Besides the hotel, we need to get better skyway signage.... We also need to become more internationally sensitive. For example, we have a tram at the airport that takes people from the parking to the main terminal, and it warns people that the doors are closing in English only.... The biggest single thing, though, is that people have to stop apologizing for Minneapolis and St. Paul. We don't have to take a back seat to anybody.
Susan Feyder --612-673-1723
Susan Feyder --email@example.com
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