Convention centers eye recovery after a turbulent 2020

After a $92 million redevelopment and rebranding, the 40,000-square-foot Caloosa Sound Convention Center & Amphitheater includes wide-open spaces and outdoor meeting areas, as well as breakout rooms for smaller groups.
After a $92 million redevelopment and rebranding, the 40,000-square-foot Caloosa Sound Convention Center & Amphitheater includes wide-open spaces and outdoor meeting areas, as well as breakout rooms for smaller groups.

When the reimagined Caloosa Sound Convention Center & Amphitheater opened in September in Fort Myers, Fla., interest in the venue was strong—and not just because it was new and shiny.

Open spaces and outdoor meeting areas are a hallmark of the venue, which features a 40,000-square-foot event center, the neighboring 243-room Luminary Hotel with 8,000 square feet of function space, and soon an amphitheater. Formerly the Harborside Event Center, the venue underwent a redevelopment and rebranding as part of the $92 million hotel project.

“We are definitely seeing that clients, especially meeting planners, like the convention center because they can spread out,” says Rhonda Decherd, director of catering and convention services for Luminary Hotel & Co.

Able to provide larger spaces for social distancing needs, convention centers are stepping up their game in preparation for the comeback of live meetings in 2021 and beyond.

To accommodate COVID-era realities, venues have made changes like socially distanced seating, hybrid and virtual capabilities, outdoor accommodations, and extensive health and safety protocols.

“It’s been very helpful for meeting planners to get their clients to come to a convention center because they know they’re going to be a safe distance apart,” Decherd says. “We have definitely seen meeting planners come to us because we are able to offer these spaces that some of the hotels haven’t been able to.”

The venue hosted the Fort Myers Home & Garden Show, its first public event, as well as a private event that included an appearance by former President Donald Trump in October.

Meeting planners have more to consider these days to make sure their events can take place safely. Tonya Almond, vice president of knowledge and experience design for the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA), says business event professionals have been working with venues to learn about current regulations on the size of gatherings, food service practices, and what costs can be shared.

“Planners are looking at virtual site visits to understand how the properties are managing the social distancing, and the destinations that have taken the steps to create videos, photos, and floor plans will have the advantage,” she said.

Construction advantages

Many convention centers already had expansions and renovations under way before the pandemic began and are on track to have extra space and the latest technology ready in time for meeting activity to pick back up.

“Renovations are always appealing because it means improvement in functionality and more than likely better event technology and ease of use,” Almond says.

For the Central Bank Center in Lexington, Ky., the pandemic has provided an opportunity to fast-track a $300 million expansion that will provide 50 percent  more exhibition space as early as March 2021.

With all events cancelling or postponing, the center’s owners were able to start demolishing meeting and convention space over the spring and summer and accelerate construction of the new spaces.

The expanded convention center was originally slated for completion in mid-March 2022. Now it is scheduled for renovated meeting space by late 2021 and full project completion by January 2022.

“So we picked up two or three months on the back end because COVID gave us an opportunity to tear down space and get an early start on some other construction,” says Joe Fields, director of convention management.

April 2021 will mark a full calendar year with no events for the venue. But it is also when its new 100,000 square foot exhibit hall will be ready, with an event booked for April 1. In May, new meeting spaces will come online.

The expansion is well timed, as Fields has received requests from groups for social distancing considerations such as wider aisles and spaced-out booths. Suites designed for distancing were under construction before the pandemic hit.

“We’re hoping a year from now, [2020] will all just be a distant nightmare,” Fields says.

Timing also worked in favor of the Charlotte Convention Center, which began its $126.9 million expansion in fall 2019.

“This meeting space will really help us bring in new business. It’s what the customer asked for, so that’s what we’re getting them,” says Mike Butts, executive director of Visit Charlotte, the city’s convention and visitors bureau.

The expansion is slated for completion by summer or fall of 2021 and will increase its size from 550,000 square feet to 600,000 square feet.

Although business has been light in 2020, the center has hosted small events of about 25 attendees and has events on the books for the first quarter of 2021.

The venue has also reached out to local hoteliers to accommodate them if they have any groups or meetings requiring more space.

“We haven’t had anyone take us up on that yet because they may just be hosting smaller events,” Butts says.

Butts believes 2022 will be an even better year because of postponed events.

“They may not be as big in attendance, but I think there are going to be a lot more meetings,” he says.

Central Bank Center in Lexington, Ky., which is undergoing a $241 million expansion that will increase its exposition space by 50 percent.
Central Bank Center in Lexington, Ky., which is undergoing a $241 million expansion that will increase its exposition space by 50 percent.

The great outdoors

To take advantage of more space and better air flow, some convention centers are looking to the outdoors as an ideal place for events and presentations.

When the Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Convention Center staged a mock trade show in November, it featured socially distanced seating and display booths, temperature screenings, and extensive sanitation protocols indoors. But the venue also held an outdoor reception to showcase its newest space—a  $50 million pedestrian park spanning the entire length of the convention center, encompassing 13 city blocks.

“The timing couldn’t be better for us to open an outdoor space,” says Tim Hemphill, vice president of sales, marketing and events for the convention center.

Part of a five-year, $557 million capital improvement plan, the 7.5-acre park features walking paths, shaded areas, and gathering spaces.

A major selling point of the park is it features several different areas that can host events small and large, with covered and open-air spaces. The possibility of hosting an entire meeting outdoors is on the table as well, according to Hemphill.

The convention center has not hosted an event since March because of cancellations. Hemphill is looking at the first quarter of 2021 as a turning point, though. The New Orleans Blastoff volleyball tournament is scheduled to take place in January, along with the Helicopter Association International HELI-EXPO in March.

“I think there’s growing optimism that the traveling public is thirsty to get back out on the road, and that’s a good sign for us and for tourism,” Hemphill says.

For the Caloosa Sound Convention Center, one of the amenities setting the venue apart will be its amphitheater, Decherd says. The amphitheater is still in the works but will be able to accommodate meetings and events of various sizes.

“You’re able to have people go out and enjoy a general session outside in the amphitheater, and then come back in for breakouts, which is unique to us,” Decherd says.

Certified for safety

With health and safety a major concern for groups and meeting planners, a growing number of convention centers are pursuing Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC) STAR Facility accreditation, considered the cleaning industry’s seal of approval for health and safety standards. The Global Biorisk Advisory Council designation helps facilities establish comprehensive protocols for cleaning, disinfection, and infectious disease prevention for their staff and building.

“The GBAC accreditation is a big component for convention centers and other venues in the destination,” Almond says.

The Charlotte, New Orleans, and Tampa convention centers obtained the accreditation last spring. New Orleans also hired an industrial hygienist and a protocol advisory firm.

As a Marriott property, the Caloosa Sound Convention Center follows established company protocols, which Decherd says are very similar to the GBAC STAR requirements.

Before obtaining the GBAC STAR designation, the Charlotte Convention Center implemented its own proprietary cleanliness program. The center has also updated its protocols to incorporate a sophisticated air filtration system that uses needlepoint bipolar ionization technology to eliminate airborne contaminants.

People will expect you to have these kinds of protocols and practices in place as a responsible company,” Butts says.

A socially-distanced meeting at New Orleans' Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
A socially-distanced meeting at New Orleans’ Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

Tech on deck

Technology has been another key consideration for convention centers as they adapt to current demands.

“Many of the destinations I’ve spoken with have worked together to create a network of convention centers across the country to network to each other so they can support events with digital and face-to-face audiences, creating a multichannel event,” Almond says.

Both the Caloosa Sound and Tampa convention centers already have onsite tech providers to set up hybrid and virtual events.

At a recent Tampa Convention Center event, the venue set up some virtual meeting rooms and reconfigured seating into a horseshoe shape to accommodate completely interactive, virtual presentations.

The center’s team considered investing in a hybrid digital suite, as some others have done around the world, but ultimately decided to keep their spaces flexible.

“What we discovered is we want to leave it in the client’s control of how they want the space to be, rather than dedicate a space to it. The client will continue to remain in control of their destination and how programming works,” says Una Garvey, convention and tourism Director.

The Tampa Convention Center is also receiving $38 million in improvements to outfit the venue with the latest convention venue technologies.

Taking clients’ cues

The Tampa Convention Center has about a dozen events booked for the first quarter of 2021. The venue has not closed its doors and allows meeting planners and groups to decide whether they want to move forward with their events.

Of those clients, 85 percent rescheduled their events for future dates.

While the venue has not received requests from meetings wanting to relocate their events to a bigger space, convention center officials have taken steps to ensure safety at events.

One of the venue’s early initiatives, before obtaining GBAC STAR accreditation in September, was to implement Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations for health and social distancing practices.

“We’re really impressed with our convention center’s teams who can provide floor plans that provide six foot distancing. Groups of families who want to sit together can still keep distance from other groups,” Garvey says.

With fewer meetings in 2020, the city-owned convention center has repurposed its facility to accommodate community and government events, such as U.S. Census training. The center also provided space for local government officials to hold socially distanced council meetings.

A photo from a Tampa Bay Chamber event from December at the Tampa Convention Center. This was a hybrid meeting where guests participated both in person and virtually. Tables were spaced 10 feet apart with same-table seating limited to individuals who know each other. Cleaning and safety measures were also applied.
A photo from a Tampa Bay Chamber event from December at the Tampa Convention Center. This was a hybrid meeting where guests participated both in person and virtually. Tables were spaced 10 feet apart with same-table seating limited to individuals who know each other. Cleaning and safety measures were also applied.

Optimism for 2021

Tampa Convention Center officials expect the first quarter of 2021 to be challenging in terms of maintaining events. The Super Bowl is set to take place in Tampa in February, although only city-sponsored events will take place at the convention center. The back half of 2021, however, appears to have increased demand.

“We’re optimistic about our future,” Garvey says. “We’re proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish the past couple of years, and we’re ready to get back to the business of convening.”

Decherd believes with people not sure what the environment will be like in 2021, meeting planners are proceeding with caution.

“With us being able to offer more space for your group or meeting, it just gives them so much more confidence in pulling off a live event versus pulling off something on Zoom, which some people don’t necessarily feel attached to,” she says.

Events for 30 to 70 people have been a perfect fit for the facility’s current space, Decherd says. The venue has also seen an uptick in requests for proposals (RFPs), with those for events of 100 to 150 people tripling.

“Soon we’ll be able to pick and choose our clients because we’re getting so many RFPs that are coming in. It’s refreshing.”




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