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Convention Attendance is Down But the Gaylord Texan and the Arlington, Texas Convention Center
 Are Expanding while Irving, Texas Has Decided to Build its Own Facility
By Andrea Ahles, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, TexasMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

September 1, 2008 - Convention attendance is down but that's not stopping convention space from growing.

Two local convention centers, the Gaylord Texan and the Arlington convention center, are expanding while another city, Irving, has decided to build its own facility.

Even with the economy in a downturn and anecdotal evidence showing fewer people attending national meetings, officials say it is the right time for these centers to be adding meeting space.

"The time to build is now because you want to open when the economy is at a strong point," said Irving Convention & Visitors Bureau executive director Maura Gast, adding their new center is set to open in fall 2010.

Since it takes a few years to build or expand a convention facility, firms need to make their decision now if they want to benefit when business travel returns, said John Keeling, a senior vice president at a hotel advising firm, PKF Consulting. He added that while conventions may be seeing a slump in attendance right now, it is only temporary.

"The main reason people go to conventions is not for information," Keeling said. "The main reason they go to conventions is for networking, meeting with competitors and customers. It's the people contact."

Irving's corporate center

Irving has wanted to build a convention center for more than 10 years, said Gast.

And after a few stops and starts, the city has finally decided on a design, bought $25 million worth of steel and is set to begin construction this fall on the $137 million project.

While Irving has several hotels that offer meeting space to companies in Las Colinas, it does not have a dedicated convention center.

Sitting on the corner of State Highway 114 and Northwest Highway, the convention center will have 50,000 square feet of exhibit space, a 20,000 square-foot ballroom and 20 smaller meeting rooms.

"The design of this building is much more multi-purpose," Gast said. "We want to capture business we aren't capturing mid-week, a lot of which is driven by the many corporations that are here."

Keeling said Irving's plans involve more technology for business uses than a typical convention center and is really a large conference center, which fits the corporate clientele it already has.

"There was a niche that wasn't being addressed," Keeling said. "It's a smart move on their part."

Arlington Convention Center

With the Dallas Cowboys stadium, host of Super Bowl XLV, looming less than a mile away, the city of Arlington is looking at expanding its convention center to possibly host events associated with the big game.

Earlier this summer, the City Council decided to conduct a feasibility study on a $115 million plan that would double exhibit space at the center to 100,000 square feet and connect it with skywalks to the Sheraton Arlington hotel.

"So many meeting planners now want an actual connected hotel and the plans that they talk about with connecting the skywalks to the expanded convention center is perfect for what the planners are looking for," said Jay Burress, president of the Arlington Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The development plan, submitted by Sheraton's owner, Highgate Holdings, would also add a 300-room wing to the Sheraton, which is the closest full-service hotel to the new stadium. The city hopes it can have the expansion completed by the 2011 Super Bowl.

Burress said if the plans go forward, the city will be able to attract more association meetings as well as keep ones that are starting to outgrow the current convention center.

Gaylord Texan

When it opened in 2004, the Gaylord Texan instantly became the largest convention space in Tarrant County. Now it's slated to get even larger.

The company plans to spend up about $310 million to add 490 rooms and 203,500 square feet of meeting space as well as two levels to its 3-story parking garage. The garage is currently under construction and the Texan projects it will have the hotel rooms finished at the end of 2010 and the convention space completed in the middle of 2011.

Gaylord executives have said that even though they have seen fewer people attending conventions at their hotels, they are planning to move forward with the expansions.

Earlier this month, Gaylord's chief executive, Colin Reed, told Wall Street analysts that the company is in the design phase and won't be ready to begin construction until the spring. That gives Gaylord time before it needs to make a final decision on the project, he said.

"We effectively have this period between now and then to assess, is there a material change in demand," Reed said.

This article contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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Copyright (c) 2008, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas

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