Wednesday, September 10, 2008


In pursuit of the 11% of overnight travelers attending conventions and meetings, cities have added 40 million square feet of new convention center space; more than 22 million in the last 10 years alone, with another 8 million in the pipeline by the end of the decade.

What many affectionately call a “space race” to keep up with other cities, the massive increase in supply, has created intense competition for a segment growing 2.5% growth annually but falling as a proportion of overall travel. To many, the race is responsible for perpetuating low occupancies and expensive concessions to draw groups.

Groups that measure convention center expansions believe the two decade building explosion may be coming to an end; particularly signaling the end of the mega-centers of 500,000 square feet plus.

Project currently in the pipeline average less than 170,000 square feet. Trade Show Weekly speculates that the trend is moving from major convention centers to hotels with convention space, or to smaller more specialized, centers with emphasis on technology, especially in second and third tier cities like all but one in North Carolina.

Durham already exceeds its fair share of conventions and meetings (15% vs. 11%) following a trend termed “going with a small lineup”, to use a basketball metaphor. And just as in basketball, the small lineup can work because 1) the average convention registration is just less than 1,500 with overall attendance just over 2,000, 2) 23% meet in the Southeast on any given year and 3) 24% use convention centers.

So while communities with mega-facilities battle it out over a smaller slice of the pie, communities like Durham meet or exceed fair share with a small lineup by hosting an average of 5,000 conventions and meetings a year or 400 a month.

It really depends on the community’s goals and aspirations. Durham seeks 1) a balance of leisure and business and 2) to meet or exceed fair market share in each segment; meaning to draw a proportion of travelers in each segment equal to the national average for that type of travel.

But Durham is also making improvements to its boutique convention center with more planned, combined with 8--soon to be 10--major convention hotels. Soon Durham will offer three clusters. Two around core meeting facilities with 500 to 1,000 guest rooms respectively in a 2 to 4 block walking distance. To planners, logistics is more important than raw capacity.

It doesn’t hurt to have great assets to leverage. RTP, Duke, NCCU, and a very strong activist community are assets to Durham in drawing conventions. I’d trade that for any mega convention center in any other city. In my experience, it is service and the inherent cultural identity of a city that wins the day.

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