Losing COGIC, and Competing for Conventions

The news that COGIC plans to move it’s annual convention to St. Louis in 2010 leaves a huge hole in the hospitality industry here in Memphis.

Since the story broke, it’s been estimated that Shelby Co. will lose some $35m. While that may not be a huge percentage of the annual GDP for the county (.06% of $56b), it’s a huge loss for one industry to absorb.

As I mentioned in this post about the proposed Convention Center last September, hotel beds in or near the downtown area is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to hosting large events here in Memphis. St. Louis’ 38,000 rooms, compared with Memphis’ 21,000 makes St. Louis an easy sell for a convention that brings in some 50,000 people annually. Further, St. Louis has 200,000 sf more convention space than Memphis, making it easier for them to keep everything in close quarters.

I do 2-3 large (5000 to 20,000) events in St. Louis every year. These vary year to year because conventions rarely visit the same city every year, particularly in my small corner of the business. However, whether the event is just using the America’s Center, or spreading it all out between that convention space and the Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis has far better accommodations to compete for events of this size.

In Memphis, if a convention wants to do something like this, transportation from the Cook to the Forum can be costly, or worse, you can lose eyeballs in the move (people not making it from site A to site B). Further, the ability to deal with just one organization between the venues makes addressing problems that arise in the normal flow of an event, less of a hassle.

Since my September post, little has been said or done about the real problems that Memphis’ convention business faces. Further complicating the issue is the economic downturn that has made competition for events far more heated, both between cities and event companies (equipment, planning, etc.). In order for Memphis to better compete in this climate, and future business climates that emerge, we have to look at ways to make Memphis more convention friendly without giving away the store.

The first step in this is actually making a long-term decision about where we want our conventioneers to be. The Cook is on the north end of Main, the Forum is further south near Beale St. Just under a mile from each other, these two sites don’t seem that far away but to an event planner, they might as well be half a world away. Event planners and hosts cannot ask their guests to take care of their own transportation from these venues. Do you want 15,000 people trying to find their way on foot, or the trolley, or by any other means from one place to the other with little knowledge of the area? That’s just not an option for an event of ANY size. Usually events end up having to provide busing from one place to the other which can be expensive, and narrows the amount of time that the event has with it’s guests. Further, coordinating between two sites in one building is hard enough, two sites a mile away is a HUGE pain in the butt. This is also true of hotels spread hither and fro in a Memphis. Guests are often bussed from hotels further south of the Convention Center. So, where do we want our guests to be, is a HUGE question that hasn’t been addressed here in Memphis.

The next thing, and I think this is reasonable, is making a conscious decision on what size of events we want to compete for. What’s sustainable? How much space, how many beds, how many restaurants, and all the things that go into supporting an event experience, is the city willing to help maintain. Hotels aren’t just going to get built because we want them to. They will get built because there’s an economic opportunity far bigger than any PILOT we could offer. We could build 15,000 more rooms in Memphis, but if there’s not the business to support them, it doesn’t matter.

So, first, where do we want people to be, secondly, how many people can we support. The third thing is managing our “brand experience”. This is the most complicated part because it deals with things that, at once, can and cannot be tightly managed, but must be met with a citywide intention to maintain certain standards. Is the convention space attractive? Is there easy access to entertainment? Is the environment generally safe feeling? Is there support staff, across all the Government and private entities involved, that is focused on assisting the guests? All these things are vital for maintaining business, and getting new business, but it’s not something that I have experienced in my 10+ years of doing events nationwide, here in Memphis, and it’s the biggest problem we face in attracting and maintaining “post-COGIC” levels of convention business.

I won’t take the time right now to get into these things specifically. I touched on them back in September and all those items and more apply still today. Ultimately, the point is making Memphis a place for conventions has to be an intentional effort above just having a place to do it. We haven’t done a good job of this. If we want to build a convention presence beyond our current levels we have to start doing a better job. All the hotels, and space, and everything else in the world won’t help us if we don’t do what we need to do with a high degree of intention.

As for COGIC, I think once they see how much more expensive St. Louis is they will be back. This gives us 2 years to start addressing some of their concerns, and working to correct problems, not only for their convention, but for other conventions of all sizes and shapes that may be interested in coming to Memphis.

If we want the business, we have to act like we do, all the time, without exception. Anything less than that ensures what we’ve been getting, and that’s obviously not really working out for us, is it?

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