Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Antidotes For Mega Facility/Event Addiction

Riding past the Charlotte Convention Center early Sunday morning on my return to Durham along NC 49, I didn’t realize that within 48 hours I would be reading another op-ed asking whether it is finally time to stop building convention centers?

I remember when Harvard-trained public policy professor, Dr. Heywood Sanders, asked that question in a 2005 report for the Brookings Institution, and the convention-industrial complex indignantly responded by throwing up 44 more of the monstrosities while shouting down the few voices, such as my own, who felt his alarm timely.Atlantic Cities Logo

Charlotte is a city, similar to Raleigh, long in the habit of “paying” groups far more to hold events there than the events actually bring in return to the bottom line.

Many in Charlotte may finally be questioning the wisdom of that strategy in light of the recent scandal related to the CIAA Tournament and the mega-cost of hosting the upcoming Democratic National Convention.

Numerous analyses, conducted over many decades, have soundly refuted anecdotal prophesies that mega-events are a strategy to accrue either fame or fortune to a community with the most recent analysis of political conventions confirming that any benefit is “elusive.” 

If bringing enduring publicity to Charlotte is the goal of the $37 million being raised by the local organizing committee for the Democratic National Convention, there are far less convoluted as well as far more enduring ways to leverage that amount of publicity or “earned media” as it is now known.

Lest this be misconstrued as a partisan issue, Tampa is raising $50 million to host the Republican National Convention and local fundraisers in both communities will tap into lots of corporate and special interest money.

The two parties also receive $18 million each in public funds which if you agree with New York Times columnist Gail Collins, is sufficient if the conventions were shortened to one day business meetings.

Overall conventions and meetings began a long, slow decline as a form of tourism less than half way through my now-concluded 40-year career in community-destination marketing, accounting now for just 10%.

Only 25% of convention and meetings use convention centers and as noted yesterday by associate editor Amanda Erickson in The Atlantic Cities, attendance at the 200 largest conventions peaked in the mid-1990s.

The frenzy of overbuilding was spawned nearly a hundred years ago and it has been kept on life support by combinations of “old school” destination development, hijack-economic development thinking and hubris-fueled seduction of civic and business leaders.

Once the egos are locked in, all energies become fully invested in justification and rationalization.  Only when a new mega-facilities trend comes along and the former supporters are no longer in control will the full story usually emerge.

No community is immune from this addiction but the antidote is a cocktail including:

  • Data-driven destination marketing insight
  • Embedded policies against “buying” events
  • Depoliticized economic impact analysis
  • Unwavering commitment to unique sense of place

And yet even a place such as Durham, where all four antidotes are firmly in place, can fall victim to a seductive perfect storm now and then.

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