|By Leon Stafford, The Atlanta
Journal-ConstitutionMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 31, 2009--The Georgia World Congress Center is the kind of place you could get lost in — not once, not twice, but several times.
It's total of 3.9 million square feet is the equivalent of 90 acres, or almost three Lenox Square malls. Levels are stacked on one another; snack bars greet weary walkers every few hundred feet; escalators descend ever deeper to show floors larger than football fields. The lobby in Building C, the GWCC's newest addition, is big enough to house a fully restored Titanic.
But as large as the facility is, the expansion arms race among convention centers means it could one day get bigger still.
Despite economic turmoil that is dragging down trade show attendance and an outlook that predicts 2010 will be a tough year for the meetings industry, convention centers in mid-size to competing metropolitan cities around the country continue to get larger.
Nashville, Indianapolis, Phoenix, San Diego and Raleigh, N.C., are all either planning new convention facilities, expanding the ones they already have or putting the finishing touches on monster additions. Their success could help leaders in other cities argue for similar expansions in the coming years.
That puts competitive pressures on the GWCC and the country's other top convention centers at a time when they can least afford them, industry experts say. To maintain their dominance, they mega-centers believe they must be able to offer more space and bigger bells and whistles than second-tier cities.
McCormick Place in Chicago, the Las Vegas Convention Center, the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, and the GWCC — the four largest U.S. meetings facilities, respectively — are all expected to end fiscal 2009 with losses or flat.
But each has hinted that they could expand to stay ahead of the pack. While the GWCC has cited no timeline for an expansion, officials in December released a master plan with a potentially bigger Building A and airport-like moving sidewalks or trams to transport visitors.
Heywood Sanders, a professor who studies the convention industry at the University of Texas at San Antonio, thinks keeping up with the Joneses is ill-conceived. He said the industry is glutted with supply while convention attendance never recovered from the 2001 terrorist attacks.
In 2000, convention attendance at large meetings was about 4.27 million, according to Tradeshow Week, an industry bible. In 2005, that number was 4.16 million.
Still, city leaders bet the farm that if they have more convention room they'll capture more of the market, Sanders said. But attendance has dropped — including at the GWCC — because of the economy, efficiency and the replacement of workers by technology. In short, he said, the numbers don't support the results.
"This is a business where people have been playing games for years," he said.
But convention center operators insist there is a valid economic rationale for expansion. One example is Nashville.
Getting Nashville's plans off the ground for a new convention center has taken a decade, said executive director Charles Starks. Originally, the downtown facility was supposed to expand on land where it currently sits, but that spot was taken by Sommet Center, the city's sports and concert arena.
So the new $635 million convention building will be built on the other side of Sommet Center. It will have 375,000 square feet of exhibit space — the usuable area centers sell to trade shows — compared with its current 118,000 square feet of exhibit space. The GWCC, by comparison, has 1.4 million square feet of exhibit space.
"We are not playing in Atlanta's league," Starks pointed out quickly. "We're not trying to. We want to play in 75 percent of the market."
It's not just about size, he said. More exhibit space is critical to meeting the changing needs of conventioneers, Starks said, adding that attendees want more sessions, bring bigger exhibits and, in the case of medical shows, need more area for exams for educational sessions.
That was not the case at the start of the decade, he said, when chairs in breakout sessions could be set up theater-style and conventioneers sat quietly taking notes as a lecturer spoke. Today, he said, attendees carry laptops and need rooms and tables with wiring and more workspace.
"All groups have grown their space needs dramatically," he said.
When the Georgia Aquarium was under construction back in 2005, leaders with the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau made a big deal of the fish tank to meeting planners in Washington, New York and Chicago.
The hype was not so much about whale sharks or sea horses, but the options available to visitors if they came to Atlanta. It was a selling point to planners sitting on the fence about bringing a meeting to the city in 2009, then light years away.
Many in the industry argue that the industry's growth plans are no different — future projections to persuade the uncommitted. Unlike other businesses that equate long-range with the next six months, the convention industry looks ahead anywhere from five to 10 years.
The business is cyclical, the experts said, demanding that leaders anticipate the future and how to meet its needs.
Starks said the Nashville Convention Center has booked 130,000 room nights — the number of nights a hotel books for conventions — for the new facility, even though it won't open until December 2012.
But Sanders, the Texas professor, thinks rising supply will force heavy discounting. Instead of selling space at fair market value, convention centers will have to throw in half-off deals like those at department stores, he said.
He pointed to Cincinnati, which has an online promotion offering a 50 percent discount on rent at Duke Energy Convention Center for meetings that spend $150,000 on food and beverage. The Washington Convention Center is offering 44 percent off rent for meetings that book 1,000 hotel rooms.
And unless businesses return to footing the bills for convention travel — which he thinks is unlikely — discounts will get steeper.
"It's a buyers market," he said. "Oversupply will create a cutthroat mentality."
Mark Zimmerman, general manager of the GWCC, is concerned about the tide of convention center growth. He knows the industry faces tough times.
Atlanta has parlayed low labor costs, 93,000 in metro area hotel rooms, and its transportation network into a spot at the top of convention cities. But GWCC revenue was $1.9 million below forecast at the end of April, and leaders said fiscal 2010, which begins July 1, could be even worse.
Zimmerman said the oversupply is not based on the growth of one or two convention centers, but on dozens collectively coming online simultaneously.
"It all adds up," he said.
He needn't look far for new competition, either. When the GWCC opened in 1976, there was no convention center at the Cobb Galleria, no Gwinnett Center and no Georgia International Conference Center near Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Hotels did not have as many meeting rooms.
Still, most of those facilities are small enough that they only complement the GWCC. For instance, when the GWCC was unable to host the Big South Qualifier volleyball tournament last year after the March 14 tornado, it took several facilities, including the GICC and Cobb Galleria, to accommodate them.
Therein lies the GWCC's strength. While Nashville is shooting to host 75 percent of the industry, the GWCC can host 95 percent, Starks said enviously. Only a handful of meetings have proved too big to fit in the behemoth.
Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores, said the GWCC has another ace in its sleeve: Hartsfield-Jackson and its massive number of nonstop flights.
Some shows now have equipment whose inner-workings can draw lots of scrutiny at airport security scanners, he said. Cities that can minimize treks through security by offering direct flights will always have an advantage, he said.
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