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A Three-way Split in Control of Oklahoma City's Cox Convention Center Poses Some Problems;
The Renaissance Oklahoma City Convention Center Hotel, the Convention and Visitors Bureau,
and SMG Struggle with Service Problems
By Steve Lackmeyer, The OklahomanMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Sep. 30, 2007 - As Oklahoma City pursues dreams of becoming a Tier 2 convention city, questions are being raised as to how well it is doing as a Tier 3 city.

For the past decade, meeting planners have had to navigate through a three-way split in control of the Cox Convention Center. And at least one local company, Express Personnel, blames the resulting confusion for not returning in February for its 25th anniversary convention.

"I was really adamant about our 25th anniversary convention here because we're headquartered in Oklahoma City," said Express Personnel Chief Executive Bob Funk. "But the service was so terrible during our last convention here that we couldn't overcome the complaints of the franchisees."

Details of that 2006 conference at the Cox Convention Center are well documented and not disputed by city officials, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and SMG and the Renaissance Hotel, which split bookings and provide service to the convention center.

They include:

-- The same dinner was served two nights in a row.

-- Not every table was provided with utensils.

-- Much of the wait staff couldn't speak fluent English and visitors couldn't find floor managers.

-- One franchisee reported only one server with a single coffee pitcher was provided for a prayer breakfast attended by 500 people.

-- Drinks ran out during the mornings and afternoons.

Funk said the first hint of trouble at the 2006 convention began when the Renaissance Hotel was 30 minutes late serving breakfast and staff provided no chairs for continental breakfasts.

"I thought maybe that was going to be the exception," Funk said. "But the bad service was continuous."

The opposite review was provided by Sonic officials after their recent convention. Nancy Robertson, Sonic's senior vice president, praised the city's accommodations and catering at the convention center, and hinted the company might consider a return engagement.

But were both events served by the same staffs?

Some of the meals for the Sonic convention were served in the convention center's exhibit halls -- areas that have open catering rights and were served by SMG. Other Sonic meals, and those at the Express Personnel conference, were in the meeting rooms and banquet hall -- areas exclusively served by the Renaissance Hotel.

David Yamada, general manager at the Renaissance, said he was unaware of the severity of criticism over the Express conference. He also said he had not seen the comments provided to The Oklahoman. Yamada had just arrived at the hotel shortly before the 2006 conference.

"There were some issues, but I'm not aware it was to that degree," Yamada said. "There were some things we could have done better ... we don't generally hear or receive complaints like this."

Yamada, however, confirmed similar complaints were voiced at the Sept. 20 "Woman of the Year" gala.

"Since I've been here, we've made a lot of changes to staffing levels, deployments and how we interact with our guests," Yamada said.

Yamada said he was hiring more full-time catering staff and added his hotel uses temp agencies to staff such events.

"But that's not an excuse," Yamada said. "If you take any one function, you can shoot a hole in anything. I believe the Renaissance had been in a leading role to move to the next level, whether it's in services rendered to rates generated. It's a premier hotel."

Desperate deal? A premier hotel was exactly what city officials courted heavily to get in 1995 -- and led them to enter into the current agreement.

Current operations date back to a time when the city was barely cutting it as a Tier 3 city. John Q. Hammons Hotels, which owns the Renaissance, was given a 20-year exclusive catering contract in 1995 for the new banquet halls and meeting rooms to be added as part of the Metropolitan Area Projects expansion of the convention center.

Back then, downtown only had one struggling hotel left -- the Sheraton -- and not a lot of attractions to draw conventions. The then Myriad Convention Center's meeting rooms hadn't been renovated since the building opened in 1971, and they were outdated and surrounded the old arena.

Hammons, a veteran hotelier from Springfield, Mo., agreed to build a $38 million hotel in a downtown that was still widely considered dead and beyond saving. To seal the deal, the city agreed to provide $7 million in forgivable federal loan funds, the right to book events at a remodeled convention center, and the exclusive catering contract.

SMG, meanwhile, was hired to operate Ford Center, and portions of the Cox Convention Center outside the banquet and meeting room addition that opened in 1998.

The city restricts bookings 18 months and out to the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Other bookings are split between SMG and the Renaissance Hotel. And all of this has led to occasional confusion over who is really in charge.

The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, which operates the Convention and Visitors Bureau with funding from the city's hotel room tax, is interviewing seven firms to analyze how to become a Tier 2 city and compete with destinations such as Denver and Kansas City.

Chamber President Roy Williams promises nothing will be off-limits -- including operation and catering contracts.

Sean Simpson, formerly employed at the chamber and now Funk's corporate communications director, believes the city will have a difficult task moving forward under the current arrangements.

"I don't think we can compete as a Tier 3 city right now, and until we can compete with other Tier 3 cities, we shouldn't set our sights on being a Tier 2 city," Simpson said. "If you start recruiting events and conventions looking for this type of service, you might not get a lot of repeat business."

Simpson questions whether the city can ever rely on John Q. Hammons Hotels as long as it's guaranteed no competition.

"They have nothing to lose," Simpson said. "In a competitive market, where you have three or four convention hotels, if you are not turning out a quality product, then other meetings and conventions can go across the street."

Yamada disagrees.

"Our reputation is important," Yamada said. "We have our brand, our company reputation, and that drives us. We look at things that will continue to drive business to our city."

Tom Anderson, a special projects specialist who works for City Manager Jim Couch, is aware of the complaints and promised City Hall is keeping a close eye on the situation.

"The Express event was a disaster," Anderson said. "We've had other events that were problematic, and others that were successful. But this one was entirely humiliating. It was embarrassing because it was one of our own. And you don't want to stub your toe when you've got a guy who's proud of his city and trying to show it off by bringing all of his franchisees here."

To expand or to build? Michael Carrier, the newly hired director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, admits the three-way operational agreement isn't one he would suggest if the city were to build a new convention center.

And that's the very "if" that the city and chamber are looking at now.

"When you look at what's happening in the industry in the rest of country, cities smaller, with less to offer in amenities, hotel packages, have facilities that are comparable or better than what we have," Carrier said. "That presents a challenge to us. Instead of competing with similar sized cities, we're competing with Shreveport."

The debate over whether to expand the existing convention center or build a new one is already under way as civic leaders ponder the future of an area between the current and future alignments of the Interstate 40 Crosstown Expressway dubbed "Core to Shore."

Some have suggested building a convention center south of Bricktown, while others say it should be built south of Ford Center.

Mayor Mick Cornett isn't convinced finding a new site to build from scratch is the right answer. He points out the current site, surrounded by hotels and across from Bricktown, is difficult to beat.

But it's also landlocked.

"The critical question is going to be if we can't expand on the current site, does it make sense to build a new convention center on a new site," Cornett said. "I want to know how close we can get to what we need on the current site."

But if the city were to stick with the current site, it could complicate the city's other ambition -- to attract a large conference hotel.

While Robertson praised the city's hosting of Sonic's convention, she noted the company had to shuttle 3,600 delegates to and from 13 hotels throughout the city.

"When we were in cities like Chicago, San Diego, Las Vegas, and with Orlando next year, typically we're in no more than three hotels," Robertson said. "In Chicago last year, we were in two hotels."

Cornett, Williams and Carrier all agree the city needs a new conference hotel, and that consideration further complicates discussion on what to do with a future convention center.

"All of these issues are good issues to have," Cornett said.

"This is an expanding tourism and convention market -- so all of our choices are enviable."


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