County turns away meetings displaced from New Orleans
By Claudio Mendonça
Miami-Dade County can't accommodate several conferences and conventions moved from New Orleans in the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Katrina.
One loss was the American Bar Association's 2006 midyear meeting. Originally scheduled for New Orleans in early February, the group sought a warm-weather Miami refuge but wound up scheduling in Chicago for Feb. 8-13.
One reason Miami-Dade has been turning down mega-conferences, experts say, is that too few of the county's 40,000 hotel rooms are available in fall and winter. In addition, the county's major convention space, the Miami Beach Convention Center, is half the size of New Orleans' Ernest Morial Convention Center.
"There are several reasons Miami has been turning down events," said Scott Brush, a local hospitality consultant. "Miami has a likelihood of problems, such as not enough five-star hotels near the convention center and banquet halls."
Because hotels are spread around the county, Mr. Brush said, organizers are opting for cities where most hotels are within walking distance of a convention center, as is the case in New Orleans. Miami Beach has about 20,000 hotel rooms.
The American Bar Association might have chosen Chicago because high-end hotels here might already have been filled, Mr. Brush said. The event's dates are close to the Miami International Boat Show's, scheduled for Feb. 16-20.
"We are sorry we had to turn down the American Bar Association," said Michael Aller, Miami Beach tourism and convention director, who said he is glad a big share of the Beach's hotel rooms are almost filled.
A planned $24 million addition to the county's inventory of meeting space might help in the future. Groundbreaking is due Oct. 11 on a 60,000-square-foot meeting center at Doral Golf Resort & Spa, home of five golf courses. Completion is due in December 2006.
The new space at Doral is to feature a 24,000-square-foot ballroom.
Doral sales and marketing head Chris Bielski said he anticipates a 20% to 30% increase in business and about 500 annual events upon the center's completion. The resort now has 80,000 square feet of space and 40 meeting rooms that accommodate nearly 1,000 guests.
"The opening of additional meeting space is great for the entire community," said William Talbert III, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Manuel Pila, Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce marketing director, said the area is not losing business due to a lack of meeting space or hotel rooms.
"We are just not gaining opportunities for greater business," said Mr. Pila, who said the Beach could use more hotel rooms. "In a few years, after the expansion of the Miami Beach Convention Center, we will be in a better position to accept better events with larger organizations."
The Beach convention center is undergoing a million-dollar upgrade. The city also is due to get $55 million targeted at expanding the convention center and adding a ballroom, said Roger Hernstadt, director of capital improvements for Miami-Dade County. The money is to come from the countywide General Obligation Bond program voters approved in November.
"Now we are waiting for the City of Miami Beach to present a scope of work and projects," Mr. Hernstadt said. "The county then reimburses the city once projects are completed."
Miami Beach is in the early stages of defining its plans, said Assistant City Manager Hilda Fernandez. Some renderings include a large ballroom, some two smaller ones, she said.
"We are very close to finalizing the interlocal agreement with Miami-Dade County," Ms. Fernandez said. "The county is being very methodical to avoid mistakes. Once we get our project defined, then we will get together with the county."
The need to expand and renovate the convention center is urgent, Mr. Talbert said. A Minnesota consultant hired by the bureau recommended adding at least 50,000 square feet.
The additional space, Mr. Talbert said, would provide more flexibility for groups such as the Travel Industry Association and American Institute of Architects, which will convene in the center in 2009 and 2010, respectively, and potentially will needed additional space.
"We can have simultaneous meetings and larger space for single users," said Mr. Talbert. "This additional space has increased importance for Miami."