Convention center plans appeal, but nagging doubts costly
Written by Michael Lewis on March 5, 2014
Our two-track route to better convention facilities won’t make us a top-tier meeting site. We can live with that, but not with doubts about just when better space with linking hotels will open.
Miami Beach is chugging toward 21st century convention center quality. On another track, downtown Miami seems destined to welcome much smaller convention halls near a new railroad depot.
Neither gain is assured. Miami Beach’s love-hate relationship with conventions long stalled vital upgrades. As for downtown, while everyone talks about it, nobody has solid plans for convention space.
In the latest steps, Miami Beach is set to pick a designer of a convention center upgrade that a firm hired later would build by sometime in 2017.
On the mainland, county commissioners have just advanced railway area zoning for convention and exhibition space. That zone could encompass the former Miami Arena site, where MDM has talked of an 1,800-room hotel with 100,000 square feet of convention space by 2017. The zoning could also include other convention halls.
County Mayor Carlos Gimenez blessed downtown convention halls last week.
Miami Beach and downtown projects would both boost the economy but still leave us in the minor leagues of conventions. While becoming a top convention city is preferable, a rapid leap is unrealistic.
The Miami Beach center is woeful, out of date technologically, drabber than drab and lacking in banquet facilities. Tourist taxes that long ago should have funded an upgrade went to a baseball stadium, basketball arena, arts center, symphony hall and more. Money in the Beach’s reach won’t stretch to yield a quantum leap.
And while the present center might seem huge at 1 million square feet – 502,000 of that for exhibits – it ranks 27th in the nation.
The largest, McCormick Place in Chicago, has more than five times as much exhibit space, 2.67 million square feet. Second-place Orlando has 2.1 million square feet of exhibit space in a 7-million-square-foot structure. We don’t measure up.
Even by vastly upgrading our current center, we couldn’t lure the huge conventions.
Compare us with the fourth-largest center, Las Vegas, with 2.18 million square feet of exhibit space and 3.2 million overall.
In 2012, Las Vegas booked 50 meetings and conventions that drew 11,400 or more persons, topped by 156,153 for the Consumer Electronics Show, 130,000 for the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week and 100,000 for the National Association of Broadcasters.
By comparison, no meeting or convention booked at the Miami Beach Convention Center from now through 2019 is large enough to crack that top-50 list from Las Vegas. Our three largest listed are each 10,000, excluding consumer shows that draw nearby visitors.
Differentiating consumer shows from conventions is vital. Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine seeks targeted conventions but wants to deemphasize consumer shows that bring in thousands of carloads of locals who don’t fill hotel rooms, dine or shop in his city. Consumer shows are not economic generators. They just trade dollars with entertainment and retail venues,
Successful US convention centers link to on-campus hotels that offer lower rates to conventions. The Beach has just dumped a convention center upgrade with an attached hotel in favor of upgrading the center while independently looking for one or two convention-priced hotels, but not necessarily on the center’s campus.
Sites will be “in the convention center area,” Mayor Levine says.
Downtown plans are even sketchier, but rail depot zoning would permit multiple hotels and MDM reportedly plans 1,800 rooms. Other area talk envisions a major hotel and convention site linked to a casino, enabled by noxious gambling laws.
A downtown site would have one great advantage over the Beach: abundant transportation. Boosting downtown as a meeting site would be Metrorail tied to the airport, Metromover at the site, and a planned rail link to Orlando. Downtown retail, dining and cultural hubs help, with much more on the way.
Nonetheless, at 100,000 square feet a downtown center would be a fifth the size of the Miami Beach’s, which itself is less than a fifth the size of McCormick Place. So downtown convention halls would cater to niche business. Even with an upgrade, Miami Beach’s market is also limited.
That’s okay. We aren’t going to be a meeting and convention magnet for the universe. We have more than meetings going for us. But “specific types of conferences and conventions” would be most welcome, as Mayor Levine says.
What vexes is the uncertain future of convention space, a question mark that has already cost us prime meetings that had been planned here, triggering tens of millions in lost spending.
Let’s be clear: it’s not space available that deterred them but present quality and uncertainty over when, if ever, quality would improve.
Nor is the problem the sales team. The tax-funded Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau lures conventions but faces strong competitors.
The bureau would have no conflict booking an added site, says CEO Bill Talbert: “Our responsibility to our partners and to the industry is to book all venues regardless of where they are.”
But while he doesn’t say so, the bureau will struggle to book anything and everything if meeting planners aren’t certain what space will be available when they meet. And they book years ahead.
Because any convention site downtown would be privately developed, it’s hard to speed details until developers seek zoning, subsidies and government aid with infrastructure.
Miami Beach’s plans do come with a timetable but, after years of reverses in course, lowered credibility. Convention planners can’t evaluate changes in city leadership, only the history of failed attempts at an upgrade. Starting over once again hasn’t helped.
This county can profit from mainland convention sites. We need both new and better facilities. We’re confident that Miami Beach will push ahead with center upgrades, but less so that necessary convention-priced hotel rooms will be close by.
Even if everything comes through, new facilities are three years or more away. Convention planners need confidence that facilities will be there – with convention-priced hotel rooms attached – to minimize uncertainty and maximize the gains in convention sites.
Beach officials, can we book those new hotel rooms in now?