Bigger and better: Convention centers usher in a new era of expansions, safety features, and tech upgrades

The 2021 Art Basel contemporary art show, held at the Miami Beach Convention Center in December, relied on timed and capacity-controlled entry to streamline the number of people coming and going.
The 2021 Art Basel contemporary art show, held at the Miami Beach Convention Center in December, relied on timed and capacity-controlled entry to streamline the number of people coming and going.

Convention centers are back—and they’re bigger and better than ever. Throughout the pandemic downturn, centers spent the last two years outfitting their venues for the future, with virtual event technology, comfortable outdoor spaces, and customized health and safety features. And those that had to put their projects on hold spent the time studying the changed environment to help them design their plans.

Convention centers are anticipating larger crowds in 2022, with some events on track to rival or surpass 2019 attendance numbers. With many Southern venues in the midst of expansions and renovations, the new generation of facilities is prepping for a post-pandemic world forever altered by COVID-19.

“The table is set for recovery,” says Brian Hall, chief marketing officer for Explore St. Louis. “We, as an industry, just need to make a commitment that we’re going to see these events through.”

The America’s Center Convention Complex in downtown St. Louis is undergoing a $210 million expansion and renovation, making improvements inside and out so it can accommodate larger events. Along with a new 61,000-square-foot ballroom, plans call for the construction of an adjacent 88,000-square-foot outdoor plaza.

“We believe exterior space is going to be at a premium, even after the recovery period from the pandemic,” Hall says. “It adds a certain ambiance and energy to a meeting, as well.”

Ahead of the renovation, the venue has incorporated safety features, including touchless entrances and touchless bathroom fixtures. On a larger scale, the convention center designed a streaming stage and hybrid studio into its existing theater to allow organizers to stream sessions to virtual attendees.

“We’re purposely designing around the future needs of event organizers,” Hall says. “Understanding everything we’ve been through over the last two years, we’ve learned a tremendous amount that’s influencing the design of this new facility, so it will be even more responsive to disease mitigation.”

Amanda Clark, director of meeting operations and engagement for the American Society of Association Executives says it will be important for planners and venues to share resources to achieve goals in 2022 and beyond.

“I would say association planners are looking to partner with venues who are willing to be flexible, meet the needs of the association and its members, and understand that partnerships are extremely valuable, especially during these challenging times,” Clark says.

A custom fit

Event customization has been a recurring theme for convention centers, with venues taking steps to create personalized experiences for target audiences while also continuing to focus on health and safety. Miami Beach Convention Center (MBCC) General Manager Freddie Peterson sees both of those trends carrying into 2022.

When the MBCC hosted the 2021 Art Basel contemporary art show in December, the event relied on timed and capacity-controlled entry to streamline the number of people coming and going at the event. Peterson points to this as an example of how the venue is working closely with clients to implement these and other modifications, such as altered floor plans.

“As always, the health, safety, security, and well-being of all who enter MBCC—and the MBCC itself—is our top priority,” he says. “Even though we just recently completed a $620 million renovation, we continue to evaluate and explore ways to provide an enhanced guest experience while keeping the aforementioned front of mind.”

Having undergone GBAC (Global Biorisk Advisory Council) STAR reaccreditation in 2021 for cleaning and sanitization protocols,
the venue continues to take protective measures, such as increased spending on sanitization and enhanced signage, while having health-education services advisors on hand.

Peterson believes beyond health and safety protocols, planners in 2022 will continue to seek out venues that employ sustainable business practices and environmentally friendly features.

Such practices factored heavily into to the convention center’s $620 million expansion, which helped the facility earn LEED Silver certification. The venue has lowered its electricity consumption, incorporated reduced-flow water fixtures, and practices single-stream recycling. The center’s exclusive food-service provider, Centerplate powered by Sodexo Live!, embraces waste reduction by designing menus that include plant-based options and using compostable plates, flatware, and cups.

The America’s Center Convention Complex in St. Louis has incorporated a streaming stage to allow organizers to stream sessions to virtual attendees.
The America’s Center Convention Complex in St. Louis has incorporated a streaming stage to allow organizers to stream sessions to virtual attendees.

Trending toward tech

This past year, many event planners retooled their conferences to meet the needs of in-person attendees as well as those who attend virtually, explains Mike Crum, public events director for the City of Fort Worth, Texas.

To respond to this trend, the Fort Worth Convention Center used federal CARES Act funds to purchase what Crum describes as a “studio in a box,” consisting of portable equipment for setting up a high-quality broadcast studio anywhere in the venue, from meeting rooms to banquet halls to the exhibit floor. The equipment includes three robotic cameras, wireless microphones, lighting instruments, switch gear, and a green screen that groups can use to produce video inside or even outside of the building.

“We felt like we needed to offer groups the capacity to come into the convention center and broadcast their show back out to their remote attendees,” Crum says.

With the convention center on the verge of restarting a $500 million expansion that was put on hold in March 2020, the venue is exploring what other kinds of amenities planners will want as the industry moves forward.

“Convention centers of the future will need to respond to the evolution of the convention and meetings industry,” Crum says.

Capacity will be a major consideration. Before the pandemic, the industry was placing a greater emphasis on breakout space versus exhibit space, Crum observes. “New venues and venues under renovation added meeting rooms and looked for opportunities to use exhibit space as breakout space,” he says.
“The pandemic has now pushed convention venues to increase their capacity to host both remote and hybrid events.”

For now, Crum says the Fort Worth Convention Center is looking ahead to an “exceptionally busy” 2022 with the schedule filling with events that committed years ago, along with events rescheduled from 2020 and 2021.

“I think the pandemic has left an indelible mark on the convention and meetings industry, so I’m 100 percent sure we’re going to have a conversation about what COVID preparedness looks like in the future for convention centers,” Crum says. “And it will be interesting to see how that influences building design.”

Outdoor spaces offer views, fresh air, and room to spread out at the new $288 million Oklahoma City Convention Center.
Outdoor spaces offer views, fresh air, and room to spread out at the new $288 million Oklahoma City Convention Center.

The case for space

While some planners are shifting their events back to hotels and smaller spaces, groups looking for more room to spread out continue to show strong interest in convention venues like the Cox Business Convention Center (CBCC) in Tulsa, Okla.

“CBCC is constantly in demand for large spaces, especially with some clients still leery of large gatherings,” says Jennifer Thornton, the convention center’s director of sales.

Having extra square footage allows planners to seat six or eight guests per table versus the 10 to 12 they were accustomed to seating before the pandemic, she says.

“The extra space to spread out events brings more comfort to our attendees and clients not only physically, but gives peace of mind that their safety is our priority,” Thornton says. To better serve clients seeking enhanced safety measures, the center adheres to the VenueShield program. In 2020, ASM Global, which manages the CBCC, launched the environmental hygiene and operational protocol program, which includes guidelines for social distancing, food and beverage safety procedures, and cleanliness standards.

Tech enhancements have been another focus for the center, which invested just shy of $1 million on upgrades to its wireless and hardwired internet systems in anticipation of a spike in esports tournaments, Thornton says.

To streamline the event planning process, the center is upgrading its website to allow planners to book online and will offer an online portal for exhibitors to order their onsite services directly through the center’s website. Also in the works for the website is a prepaid parking option, allowing attendees to plan and pay for parking in advance. And to improve production quality for event presentations, the center’s audiovisual department has moved from projectors to high-definition TVs.

Advantage, new facilities

Being a newly built venue put the $288 million Oklahoma City Convention Center at an advantage when it opened in January 2021, replacing a 50-year-old event facility.

“We didn’t have a lot of things we had to unlearn or try to undo,” says Al Rojas, the center’s general manager. “We didn’t have
a routine we had to break. We were starting fresh out of the box. So, it made it easier for us to accept [COVID] protocols and put them into place.”

Other benefits of the new building are the amount of space—500,000 square feet—and having the latest technology, along with an
in-house audiovisual service. These features give the venue the flexibility to host a variety of events, including hybrid meetings, which Rojas believes will evolve into a value-added feature rather than a pandemic precaution.

“Hybrid is something that will be part of the show, but it’s not going to replace the gathering,” Rojas says, adding hybrid offers benefits to people who are unable to travel to a conference. “Sometimes schedules don’t permit, so this is another way to open the content of a show to a bigger audience.”

The center also was able to incorporate ionized filtration into its heating and cooling system to help improve air quality. As a venue that sees many of its clients opt for traditional indoor events such as sporting activities, the filtration system helps create a healthier environment where groups can meet. “Being a new building, we didn’t have to do a lot of retrofitting to add ionization,” Rojas says.

Redefining “normalcy”

The Fort Worth Convention Center is about to restart a $500 million expansion project, part of a trend toward increasing venue size and capacity.
The Fort Worth Convention Center is about to restart a $500 million expansion project, part of a trend toward increasing venue size and capacity.

Even as the pandemic lingers, convention centers are feeling a greater sense of normalcy than they did a year ago, says Dean Dennis, senior vice president and general manager of the Renasant Convention Center in Memphis, Tenn. “Safely getting back together is on the rise, and we have had a steady increase in meetings and events over the past several months,” Dennis says.

Though many events rely on digital platforms to reach attendees, face-to-face events have been important to groups working with the Renasant, Dennis adds. “The planners want to continue to engage their clients with the event, but the real ‘meat’ of the program has moved significantly to in person,” he says.

“Normalcy,” however, has taken on a new meaning. Although social distancing setups are not as prevalent as they were a year ago, Dennis notes, event organizers still work to create ways for people to spread out.

“We do still see events using a little larger space than they perhaps did before the pandemic to accommodate more space for guests to freely move around the event, in part because we have all grown accustomed to having a little more space around us,” he says.

Outdoor receptions and activities continue to be in high demand, with groups relying on a mix of indoor and outdoor events. “Not only is it a safe option, but it also breaks up every event being inside the four walls of the center,” Dennis says.

Onsite safety remains a priority for all groups, with events deploying the software platform Bindle for storing vaccine records and touchless check-in technology, such as the ID system CLEAR, which recognizes faces and eyes, according to Dennis.

“Managing events in this current time means staying engaged to the wants and needs of our clients and making sure we are doing all we can as a venue to provide a safe and clean building for them to hold their meetings and events,”
he says.

As Brian Hall of Explore St. Louis sees it, convention centers are ready and willing to meet each planner’s unique needs and expectations. And now that venues have had almost two years of experience adapting their facilities and practices, convention centers should be well positioned for the next era of meetings and events.

“The science is such that we all understand now what needs to be done and what is most effective at minimizing disease spread and maximizing attendee safety,” Hall says. “And we’re just going to keep advancing these practices and implementing all protocols that we know are important and work for all of the groups we have lined up for 2022.”

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