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Miami Beach Convention Center Needs Upgrades and a Convention Center Hotel
to Remain Competitive According to One Leading Meeting Planner

By Hannah Sampson, The Miami HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Oct. 22, 2012--Johnnie White knows conventions. And the incoming chair of the Professional Convention Management Association knows he likes Miami.

In his day job -- executive director of the Cardiovascular Research Foundation's Center for Education -- White is responsible for bringing the biggest group meeting of the year to the Miami Beach Convention Center.

The Transcatheter Cardiovascular Therapeutics Scientific Symposium, which starts Monday and continues through Friday, has some 12,000 people registered. The annual event, which has never before come to Miami, rotates between the west and east coasts every year, and could potentially return to Miami in 2016 and 2020.

What White doesn't know is whether the aging convention center will be up to his organization's needs by then.

In August, voters passed a referendum to allow for an increase in Miami Beach hotel room taxes in order to partially fund improvements to the facility. Miami Beach officials last year put a $1 billion convention center district redevelopment project out to bid and got the interested parties ranked by a committee, but a corruption probe and concerns over procedural issues put any plans on hold.

Now that the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office has said the project was not implicated in criminal activity, commissioners are waiting for the interim city manager to select which teams will submit specific proposals. They city is hoping developers will finance the bulk of the project.

During an interview at Miami International Airport following a site visit in Miami Beach, White talked about why he thinks the convention center needs updating, the appeal of the area and what it would take to get his group back.Q. If the Miami Beach Convention Center needs so much work, why at this point is it acceptable for this conference to be held there? Is it good enough now the way it is?

It is good enough now, but in terms of growing, it's not. Right now we're running out of rooms. We're using pretty much every square foot of that convention center. Something that we're doing that most organizations do not do, we're taking the exhibit hall space, that's the big square in the middle, and building rooms inside that space because we don't have large enough meeting rooms in the meeting room space....If I were in a situation that I did not do that, then I would not be able to use Miami because of that.Q. What needs to be done to make you want to commit future dates for this organization for other events?

One of the things that this city lacks is a convention headquarter hotel ... In addition to that, the center needs to be expanded. As I stated, I'm building rooms in there, but there should be more rooms there, more ballroom space, more larger space. A lot of meetings do general sessions -- general sessions seat from 1,000 people to 2,500 people -- and that doesn't have that capability right now.Q: What is the reputation of Miami Beach or Miami among the people who you deal with?

I would say this is a great city to do those in-house meetings, meaning at the hotels. But the perception is that it's not a city that you can bring a very large group to because they don't think there's enough hotel rooms and they don't think there's enough space at the convention center.Q. There are places like Orlando that have built up huge infrastructure around convention centers -- Indianapolis, all these other places that have made investments. Why not just go to one of those places?

The biggest answer to that question is Miami has an international appeal. My meeting has, from a physician base -- out of the 12,000, about 6,000 are physicians -- 70 percent of those physicians are from outside the U.S. So I'm looking for cities that have that appeal that's going to bring an attractiveness for international attendees to come.Q. How do you see group business, convention attendance in the U.S. since the recovery from the recession?

I think 2009, 2010, things were either going down or they were flat. We are seeing an uptick in the last couple of years. A majority of the colleagues that I talk to, they're seeing maybe a 5-10 percent increase in their attendance, which is a good thing.Q. There were issues about having conventions, especially for government, in places that were seen as resort destinations. Is that bias still there? Has that eased?

A few years ago, the government came out with this guideline: "Don't meet in resorts," talking about their own agencies not meeting in resorts. And then that's a ripple effect, because all the organizations I worked with started doing the same thing. Hotels started to change the names of their properties, taking out the resorts. That's changed.

I think a lot of the organizations are seeing the benefits of just having face-to-face meetings.Q. I don't know if the idea of expanded casino presence in downtown Miami...would have an impact on a decision of a group like yours to come to a place. [Malaysia-based Genting Group bought The Miami Herald's building for $236 million with plans to build a casino, hotel and retail complex; legislative approval is still needed.]

If the city puts in as many different outlets of entertainment, it helps any group. Our physicians, they like cities that have culture, so they like to go to the opera, they like to go to shows, they like to go to really good restaurants. But there are other groups that just want entertainment, so going and gambling or something like that will be entertainment. So I would say it would be a benefit for having many types of entertainment complexes because it gives them options to do many different things.

Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.


(c)2012 The Miami Herald

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