Thinking about convention centers

Harold Collins
Harold Collins
Twice now, in the past two weeks, Memphis City Councilman Harold Collins has publicly voiced his support for at least thinking about a new convention center here and yesterday, here.

Earlier this month, Kevin Kane of the Memphis CVB told the City Council that the Cook was functionally obsolete, something I could have told you before the $100m renovations, approved in 2001.

Realistically, that would have been the time to build, but the political will just wasn’t there.

Days after Kane’s statement, Otis Sanford said a convention center just isn’t in the cards.

I think it should be part of the discussion of downtown development.

I think it HAS to be.

I also think that any discussion has to have an element of a larger conversation that transparently assesses our current assets, liabilities, and doesn’t seek to solely “keep up with the Nashvillians”.

The Convention Business

I spent way more than a decade in the Convention business. I’ve done my fair share of events, large (25,000) and small (<250) in just about every convention center and arena in the US. I've been out of the business for more than a year now, but things haven't really changed that much. Planners are still looking for three basic things: a place they can sell to their attendees (read something they can't get at home), convenient accommodations (lodging, travel), and space that isn't overly restrictive. Newness doesn't necessarily play into most decisions...it can attract people, and scare them off depending on their tolerance for the unknown. Lots of hotel options and convenient parking are more important for conventions bringing lots of folks in from out of town town than "newness". Most conventioneers don't give a crap about the space...unless it's really bad. They care about the place. Our current space is constraining. One event I still get calls to do can't come back to Memphis even though they want to because the space is too small, and more importantly, there aren't enough hotel rooms downtown. Between 3,000 and 6,000 room nights are lost because of the size of our convention center on that one show alone. Add COGIC to the mix, and that's a lot of money being left on the table. We can't make a decision based on two shows, but those two shows can give us an idea of what we're missing. I think we're missing out on a lot, and I've written about it more than once. (here, here, and here)

Start with a plan

As I said in this 2008 post, any plan that doesn’t start with the FedEx Forum at the center of it is missing the boat. We’ve got an awesome arena that could be used a lot more if we planned our conventions around it.

One convention I did for several years used both arena and convention center space. In Houston, we occupied the Toyota Center for two weeks, and a huge chunk of the nearby George R. Brown Convention Center for about 10 days. 15,000 attendees, over 150 crew members, hundreds of thousands of dollars in catering, convention services, and local labor. It was a lot of money.

That show moved every year, using the Georgia Dome in Atlanta and the Edward James Dome in St. Louis…as well as their accompanying convention centers.

Now we may not be ready for something on that scale just yet, but we’d be fools not to plan to be. The truth is, we need a ton more hotel rooms downtown, but there’s not much incentive to build under the current situation, and there’s just about no place near the Cook to put a new large hotel (unless its serving Bass Pro) on that end of downtown.

This will be the critical “chicken/egg” argument that gets brought up. But last I checked there were two new hotels slated to start building downtown. I’m not sure how many rooms that will add up to, but with a 60% occupancy rate, there’s a better than average chance that we could add more capacity downtown in the near future.

Breaking ground on a newer, bigger convention center would increase those chances…so long as it was done in a way that allowed for that growth very near by. That’s key.

By the way…if we ever want to host an NBA All-Star game, more hotel rooms is probably the first priority. We have one of the nicest arenas in the country. Our arena isn’t the reason the NBA hasn’t come here yet. Its hotels, pure and simple.

Thinking Beyond Beale

Beale St. is a huge asset, though until recently, folks may not have thought of it that way. But we can’t get so caught up in Beale as the central driver of evening tourist fare that we don’t think about the area in a bigger way.

There’s a lot of undeveloped or underused land in the downtown area (west of Danny Thomas, north of Crump, south of A. W. Willis).

I’d have to go back and check, but I think much of that space is thought of currently as potential residential space. Residential isn’t going to bring us more hotel rooms. We need to connect our assets in a way that makes people want to come to Memphis, or hold their convention here.

Reconsidering plans that may have been in the works for years has to be part of this. And having plans for expanding the core “tourism” area downtown also has to come into play…even if those plans don’t come to fruition for a decade.

Telling our story better

We’ve got a lot of assets, even if not all of them are downtown. The Civil Rights Museum (a USAToday “iconic attraction), all the music…from the blues, to Sun, Stax, and even Elvis (Graceland was the other USAToday “iconic attraction” from Memphis). While these things may not be right next to each other, they are attractions that are meaningful to people outside of Memphis…even if those folks don’t know it. They are connected in ways that may not be evident to folks here. In fact, their stories are more intertwined than you might imagine.

We’ve got to tell those stories, and the story of how they’re intertwined better…but we’ve also got to connect these dots for people so they have more of a reason to come here.

That’s what marketing is.

Right now we seem to rest primarily on Elvis, and to a lesser degree, Sun and Beale. The Civil Rights Museum is too often an afterthought…which is unfortunate, because the story it tells is a huge connector to the music from these different places.

Clayborn Temple needs to be a part of that as well. It’s a shame that this historic building has been allowed to decay the way it has.

Getting Real

But back to this proposed committee. If it comes to fruition, we need to be real honest with ourselves and the people about where we stand right now. That means how much we’re doing at the Cook now. How many room nights that is, and how many rooms there REALLY are downtown (they say more than 4,000…but what does “downtown” mean to the CVB?).

We don’t necessarily need to think about trying to directly compete with Nashville. They’ve got more convention space than they can deal with between the new Music City Center and Opryland. We need to be realistic…which means neither undervaluing, nor overvaluing what we have to offer here.

We also need to carefully evaluate how we’re selling Memphis. Other cities our size have scads of sales people flung clear across the country. We have to look at the current sales plan for Memphis, and evaluate it against other cities (bigger and smaller) to find the right fit for us.

We need to consider that the Cook is still viable for some events, even if it’s not the best spot for all of them (I’ve done scads of events in the Ballroom and Cannon Center and they are valuable additions to Memphis).

Most of all, we have to be honest with the people about what the committee finds.

I support the idea of exploring a convention center because I know first hand what it can do for a city if its done right. But I’m also leery of the way another big project that gets handled.

We don’t need another Beale St. landing. Hell, we didn’t need the first one.

We don’t need another shadowy semi-autonomous board (RDC) that acts as if the public doesn’t exist and doesn’t take care of city assets (like Mud Island).

If anything, we need to have fewer of these kinds of boards.

Most of all, we don’t need another boondoggle…and this could turn into one real quick. Which is all the more reason to make the proposed committee the model for transparency…unlike the aforementioned shadowy semi-autonomous board that also has its hands in the downtown area.

Anything less is a recipe for failure…and that’s something we certainly can’t afford.

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