(Ed. Note: Some of the issues I talk about below may seem mean spirited and not very “liberal”. So be it.)
In today’s CA Amos Maki brings up the subject of our panhandling problem downtown, and its effect on our tourism industry. As a professional traveler, and a person who spends an inordinate amount of time in and around Convention Centers and Arenas nationwide, I think I have a pretty good grasp on the real problem facing the convention industry here in Memphis, and it isn’t panhandlers.
Before I launch into my list of “problems” the city’s convention industry faces, let’s just talk about the “panhandler” situation. Memphis does have a lot of panhandlers for the small area that the downtown touristy spaces occupy. This is due to a lot of things but, in reality, panhandlers are a part of nearly every major city worldwide.
I agree that panhandlers here are perhaps more brazen than in other cities. Still, when I think of aggressive panhandlers, New Orleans, Detroit, and San Francisco come to mind long before Memphis. Anyone who has ever walked from Union Square to Market St. in SF knows what I’m talking about…persistent, aggressive, if not threatening begging the whole way.
The primary place that I have experienced panhandling in Memphis has been on Beale, but I know for a fact that the Main St. trolley route from the Marriott to Beale is a haven for panhandlers, as is the Bus Station near the DoubleTree. For people from out of town, it can be a bit scary. Still, if people want to come to Memphis panhandlers will not keep them away, and, the more people that come to Memphis, the more panhandlers we will see on the streets of downtown. It’s basic supply and demand.
As annoying as panhandlers are they are not keeping conventions out of Memphis as Maki reports. There’s a far greater problem related to the infrastructure of our convention spaces and our hotel capacity that has a larger effect than any panhandlers.
Even though the Convention Center was updated a few years ago, there are a lot of issues related to it that keep mid to large-sized conventions out. The new Grand Ballroom on the upper level is a nice space, but it will only comfortably accommodate 1500 seated at rounds with any kind of stage and production support. While that seems like a lot of people, it really isn’t. If your event is larger, the only option downtown other than the Pyramid, which is largely mothballed, is the South Hall, a space that looks, feels, and sounds like a Wal-Mart from hell. The South hall can handle about 7500 people in theater seating with production support. I do not know of any attempt to serve food (like a large formal dinner function) there, but I can only imagine the mess that such a proposal would create. Additionally, the physical seating in the South hall consists of these hideous red folding chairs that probably were purchased with the building. They are uncomfortable and in a shabby state. Hardly the image an organization would like to project, not to mention actually having to sit in one for several hours.
Because of the way that the Convention Center is designed, with all the wide open space on the upper level, it is impossible to get a standard 40’ or larger truck trailer with cab up to the expo space without the use of the truck elevator. This contraption allows one 53’ trailer per trip, and requires specialized operators to run. It is a supreme pain, and breaks down frequently even though it was newly installed with the update. This alone is reason enough to avoid the Cook.
The individuals that make up the Convention Center Administration are incompetent on an order that I cannot even calculate. If these people are supposed to be the face of our convention business, their knowledge of the business and people skills leave much to be desired. They disdainfully execute their functions like a disaffected teen Taco Bell drive-through attendant, often costing the Convention Center and the events that chose to utilize the space, thousands of unnecessary dollars largely due to their inattention to detail. As an event coordinator I detest working with these people, and quite honestly, they probably sigh mightily when they see me coming, knowing that they have, once again, spent too much time on Solitare, and not enough on making my experience seamless. Were I in a position to push an event to a location, these people alone would motivate me to look elsewhere.
That said, I have found the actual crew at the convention center (electricians, house crews etc.) to be helpful and responsive in the face of their superior’s incompetence. This is a nice thing. It would be very easy for them to be bitter in the face of this incompetence. They seem to understand and relate to the customer very well, and will do just about anything to make things right, despite the inattention of the house coordinators.
There are about 10 downtown hotels that are suitable for convention attendees. They represent about 2500 rooms. Four of these hotels are 3 star or better (Marriott, Peabody, DoubleTree, and Westin representing 1500 rooms). Of these, only the Marriott (600 rooms) has direct access to the Convention Center (an additional 230 are within walking distance at the nearby Wyndham), creating a transportation expense for the meeting planner. Busing from one location to another is a budget buster and a potential logistical nightmare.
Let’s think about these 2500 rooms in terms of the city’s largest convention…COGIC. COGIC brings anywhere from 10 to 15,000 people to the city every year. The influx of people strains the current infrastructure. Even if every room downtown were available and you stacked 4 people in each room (God help you if you’re in the Peabody) with the normal business and tourist traffic that could mean as many as 7500 people scattered throughout areas as much as 5 miles from downtown, and across the river in West Memphis. From a planning perspective this is a nightmare.
Memphis needs another premiere hotel within walking distance (2 blocks) of the Convention Center, if for no other reason, to provide competition for the Marriott, which currently holds an exclusive on the lucrative catering contract. Unfortunately, aside from some space on the other side of the freeway, the Convention Center is out of reach for any competing hotelier. This is a problem for the local convention industry. By only having one major hotel in the vicinity, it gives the Marriott an effective monopoly, making block room negotiations between properties impossible.
Production and Crewing
There are two full service Production companies in Memphis that specialize in corporate events. Both of these companies are competent and affordable in comparison to the much larger companies that dominate the coasts and larger metropolitan areas. If you extend the area to include Little Rock and Nashville (on the I-40 corridor and within 3 hours of Memphis) that number jumps to 5. Additionally, if you include smaller companies that provide more specialized services (Lights, Sound, Video and Décor individually) that number jumps to nearly 25 across the I-40 corridor. Unfortunately, when events come to Memphis, little if any attempt to utilize local businesses is offered by the Convention Center staff. As a city owned building, though managed by SMG, every effort should be made to ensure that local businesses profit from the convention work that comes to the city. This is simply not happening. The coordinator staff at the Convention Center has an adversarial relationship with these companies, for reasons that pre-date my residence in Memphis. In doing so, they do harm to the locally owned businesses that should be profiting from these events.
For those events that choose to use outside production support, they have the additional challenge of a weakened IATSE. Local 69 has been in disrepair for the past 10 years. There are other options, but they largely draw from the same pool of individuals. The lack of a large pool of professional and knowledgeable stage hands means bringing in more crew from outside of town, and further injuring the local economy by sending the money outside of the city.
Incoming Land Travel
Perhaps our greatest strength is our central location, and our placement at the crossroads of two of the most traveled interstates in the nation, I-40 and I-55. This makes it easy for people traveling to Memphis by car to get here, and also gives outside production easy access to the city.
While Memphis may be one of the busiest airports in the south, much of that traffic is for freight, ie. FedEx. It is difficult to get from anywhere outside of the southeast to Memphis, even on NorthWest, our largest carrier. Most of this is due to demand. People do not necessarily travel to Memphis, the travel through Memphis. I fly upwards of 50,000 miles a year, and nearly every time I come into town, the line at baggage claim, the truest test of tourist travel to Memphis, is small. While convenient to me, this indicates that the large number of people arriving at our airport don’t intend to stay, but to get elsewhere. This is also true of some other hubs, but Memphis is also less of a destination than say Dallas or Chicago.
Ground Transportation from the Airport
From my house near Cooper Young it is a $20 cab ride to or from the airport. It’s more like $30 to the Peabody or Marriott (despite what is advertised on the web). That’s high. Two years ago, traveling from LaGuardia in NYC to MSG in Manhattan cost $35 (NY Cab says it’s $26). For contrast, a pack of smokes in Manhattan costs 8 bucks. Here cigarettes are about $3.50. Granted, the distance is greater in Memphis (by about 3 miles) but with higher COL, and fuel prices in NYC, one would think it would be much cheaper here in Memphis. An effective public trans system to downtown would mitigate that problem, and give conventioneers more affordable options.
Memphis is not a Destination
Outside of Elvis fanatics and Blues enthusiasts, Memphis does not project an image that would attract a diverse group of people. In order to keep people coming to Memphis we need to have first class convention facilities. That is not happening. By focusing our efforts on the further improvement of the Convention Center, and increasing hotel capacity we can better position ourselves to capitalize on this industry.
So back to the panhandlers. I call straw man. A little increased police presence and greater enforcement can minimize this problem or at least make it more manageable. Ending the permits for these individuals would also go a long way in making it known that they are not welcome. Even though I don’t concentrate on it, Memphis has a lot of things going for it, and, with proper leadership, could attract a lot of business and potential jobs with convention business. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to want that, based on our actions. Until we focus our efforts on that, nothing will change.