Let's Talk Convention Centers

As my good friend LeftWingCracker has alerted you, and the CA reported this morning, the city has put together a panel to study a new convention center. This is an interesting development indeed.

As some of you know, I spend a lot of time in convention centers, Arenas and Ballrooms all over the country. In July I was at the America’s Center in St. Louis managing an event for 10,000, for two weeks. Until recently, I had worked in every primary arena in the top 100 markets in the US. I’m not bragging, that’s just what I do. I know a thing or two about convention centers and I work the one here in Memphis just about every month of the year in one capacity or another.

Convention Centers are a tricky thing. This is no Field of Dreams, just because you build it doesn’t mean they’ll come. In order for a city to compete with premiere convention cities like Orlando and Vegas, there has to be a level of coordination that Memphis has yet to demonstrate in my experience.

But, before I go too far too soon, let’s look at the idea from all the angles, what we have, what we want, and what needs to happen to make it work.

Size and Layout

Despite the renovations at the Cook, the space is limited to an event in an end stage arrangement of about 8000 people in the Expo area (NW Hall, SW Hall, East Hall 124k sq. ft.). This is including the bleachers, and additional chairs rented in because the chairs in the Expo Hall at the Cook are as old the building, are wider than current standards, and are in a sad, sad, sad state of repair. You may be able to get more people in, depending on your level of production, but I’m not sure that anyone has tried in the past 4 years or so. The web site says you can do 10,000, but that’s just if you grease up the last 1000 or so. These estimates are notoriously incorrect at EVERY CONVENTION CENTER IN AMERICA. Really, it doesn’t matter. There’s not enough parking to support 10,000 people anyway without spreading it all over downtown.

The other rooms in the Cook are the new Ballroom (28k sq. ft), which is nice and does banquets of 1500 or theater of about 2500 with any kind of stage. The site says it’ll do more but that’s gotta be without a stage. There are also all the little rooms on the Mez and Lobby levels. For larger events, these are breakout rooms, for smaller local stuff they make good meeting rooms even though they look like they were designed by Blanche from Golden Girls.

So, the answer to your question is yes, the Cook is limited by space.

The Cook is also a HUGE PAIN IN THE ASS TO GET INTO. Every room of ANY size is, for some stupid reason, on the top floor. This means unloading hundreds of cases into a freight elevator, and then pushing them some 200’-300’ to wherever they need to be. For the Expo Hall, should you have a full tractor trailer or two of gear, you have to put it on a TRAILER ELEVATOR that requires a special guy from Chicago to bless it, then if it doesn’t get stuck, you can unload it and do that as many times as you have trucks. Sounds like fun huh?

So the next answer is yes, the Cook is…antiquated.

However, the Cook is PAID FOR, and while it’s got some not so darling quirks, to my knowledge the building itself hasn’t kept anyone from coming back…usually that task is handled by the management.

What would I want, as a guy that will have to work in this proposed building?

1. Big assed rooms on the ground floor with dock access, easy rigging (no drop ceiling) and lots of power options. This makes your boat shows and expos, and big conventions easier. Keep the airwalls to a minimum folks, that just gets in the way of rigging and provides more opportunity for failure. Low steel should be no lower than 35’ on 30’ or less centers (that means a 30’ box made by the beams overhead), high steel should be free of as many obstructions as possible to allow for bridles so people can put things where they need to go instead of where they have to go.

2. Smaller rooms close by for breakouts, perhaps on an upper level ala the America’s Center in St. Louis or the George R. Brown in Houston. America’s Center requires an elevator push to get your gear there, but aside from 1 large room, most of the rooms are for less than 100 people, so it’s manageable. At GRB, you have the convenience of an elevated drive that has plenty of dock space for even the largest truck. GRB also has many room options, though I would advise against the theater…it’s just a weird room.

3. Fixtures that are consistent with current industry standards. Don’t go out and buy the wide assed chairs, even though we know Memphians are a little wider than people that don’t have food as good as ours. That 19” standard chair will work just fine.

I know, I know. Now I’m just dreaming.

I don’t care what the rooms look like inside, that’s not my concern. Pretty them up all you want, but the space has to be laid out in a way that makes sense and gives us the opportunity to run two or three BIG shows at once without having people bumping all in to each other.

Location

If anyone is thinking about putting this thing anywhere other than as close to the FedEx Forum as codes allow, they need to have their head examined. Dock access needs to be on the part of Danny Thomas that isn’t completely and totally stupid for a big truck to get into. When you’re planning this part, go to Diesel Driving Academy and get the dumbest guy in the class to try and make the turn, or, I know a guy your can fly in from Florida.

Seriously though, the largest event I do is somewhere between 10 and 15k people for a week. They need an arena, or else it just gets unmanageable. We’ve done this event at indoor football stadiums, but arenas work too. The key is getting that convention space for breakouts as close to the arena as possible so the client doesn’t have to pay for bussing to and from the venues. That can be a deal breaker.

One more thing, in the article Lee Jackson mentions a space across from AutoZone Park. Unless you’re going to buy out the bus station and move it somewhere REALLY FAR AWAY FROM DOWNTOWN LIKE WEST MEMPHIS, and you’re willing to tangle with Lester Lit, and you want lose 4th street between Union and Beale you may need to reconsider. Also, they just built all those apartments right there, are those people going to want a convention center across the street? Just askin’.

Ok, so there are some technical things that have to happen in order to make this proposed new building even marginally better than the Cook. Unfortunately, that’s not all you have to do to make this thing work. Nope, that was the easy part.

Memphis the Destination

Orlando is a Destination, as is Las Vegas. Atlanta is even a destination in many ways. Hell, Nashville is a destination. What has Memphis done to create and reinforce the idea that it is a place to COME? Seriously what. CVB, what are you guys doing to get people to come here? Is there an ad campaign? Is there…anything? Do we have a slogan that I should know? I mean what? What are we doing to get people here. I travel all over the country and the ONLY PLACE I EVER SEE ANYTHING ABOUT MEMPHIS IS IN MEMPHIS. Are we marketing to ourselves? What are we doing?

For YEARS the state of Arkansas has been advertising on national TV (CNN, ESPN, Travel Channel) to get people to come CAMPING…CAMPING. C-A-M-P-I-N-G. What are we doing? We’ve got Elvis, we’ve got the Blues, we’ve got Beale St. we’ve got more frickin museums than we know what to do with, we’ve got a BIG ASSED RIVER. Seriously, I want to know what we are doing?

In order for Memphis to be able to even marginally compete with the convention powerhouses in the nation, we have to stop thinking about Memphis the way locals think about Memphis and start thinking about Memphis the way we want other people to think about Memphis so maybe they’ll decide to come here.

We have to have amenities close to the Convention area that are nice things to do. Not every convention turns into a Beale Street Bender.

Ugh, this part is pissing me off.

Before a dime is spent on a single drink at a single committee meeting someone needs to explain what the hell we’re doing even talking about this when we’re either not EFFECTIVELY marketing ourselves to the scary outside world, or worse, we’re not doing ANYTHING.

Just sayin’, now, on to the next topic.

Hotels

One thing is for sure, we do need more beds downtown. That’s just undeniable, and so far the only thing that makes any sense right now is getting more beds in downtown Memphis. The new Westin is nice, the expansion to the Peabody will be cool, but why is it we have a Hilton corporate headquarters here in Memphis, and there ain’t no downtown Hilton? Huh? Any answers? Anyone ever approach them? I mean, we’ve got a DoubleTree, and a Hampton, but no Hilton. Ok just wondering.

Memphis loses thousands of dollars in taxes every year to W. Memphis Hotels. Make some rooms. Seriously, so far this is the ONLY thing that makes sense.

Conclusion

Actually I have more but 2000 words is my self-imposed limit, so once I get my ass handed to me for this post, I’ll put that one up.

The point is that yes, I know this is just a panel to study stuff. I get it. This is your first assignment. If you can answer all of this with something other than “but I want it” then I’m sold. If not, once again the allure of a big old building that’s all shiny and new, and sure to cure all the ills in this city will get built and nothing will happen but higher taxes and a lot of developers laughing all the way to the bank with our money.

We’ve had big plans before, and just because they didn’t work out doesn’t mean this one won’t, but we’ve had big plans before that got shoved in a closet because someone didn’t get paid or we just lost the faith.

Seriously, I’m just sayin’.

2 thoughts

  1. Great, great insight.

    There seems to be many hurdles, as you have pointed out, and in addition, the current Convention Center is not paid for. There’s probably more than $50 million in debt remaining.

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