Top Miami Beach Convention Center pick pledges Basel role will be limited to referrals
By Risa Polansky
The prospective new manager of the Miami Beach Convention Center expects to wrap up a contract with the city by Sept. 10, when the commission reconvenes after this month's recess.
The deal would come amid protests from some industry players, who oppose a plan for potential new manager Global Spectrum to team with Art Basel parent Messe Schweiz.
Art Basel Miami Beach is an annual convention center tenant.
Some say the partnership presents a conflict of interest and could jeopardize other events — a major industry organization wrote to Beach officials last week to say just that — though Global Spectrum officials insist Messe Schweiz will not have a hand in center bookings.
"We don't plan in any shape, manner or form to have Messe Schweiz involved in the actual booking of events," said Frank Russo, senior vice president of business development and client relations. "They'll have absolutely no ability to impact any other show in any way."
Rather, the Swiss company will be able to offer suggestions and referrals, as well as help improve customer service at the center, he said.
Messe Schweiz plans to open a Miami Beach sales office in Europe and has committed to bringing another show to Miami Beach in addition to Art Basel.
The company has not specified what type of event, Mr. Russo said, though a "Gardenia Miami Beach" — a high-end garden and landscape architecture show — could be in the cards depending on the center's booking calendar.
Either way, he said, "they have committed a significant show for 2010."
Miami Beach officials are thrilled at the prospect of the European connection, Mayor Matti Bower said.
"What the commission was sold on is the tie with Europe — the issue of bringing the Art Basel and bringing shows like the Basel is something new," she said. "We need to keep Miami Beach on the forefront for not only economic development. For tourism, we would like to see some new things come along."
Global Spectrum and Messe Schweiz should offer "a fresh look, a way of bringing some sparkle to Miami Beach," Ms. Bower said.
The commission voted last month to negotiate with Global Spectrum.
A final contract would end current manager SMG's almost-18-year run.
Mr. Russo said he expects to solidify a deal by Sept. 10. Should it fall through, the city has the option to negotiate with SMG.
SMG is "ready and anxious" to continue in Miami Beach, said Doug Tober, regional general manager and the convention center's senior general manager, in an e-mail.
But the city's decision to negotiate with Global Spectrum "disappointed" SMG.
It "was not in the best interests of the city and disappointed us," he said. "It is important to note than an evaluation of industry professionals and residents of Miami Beach chosen by the city, after careful consideration of all the facts, unanimously recommended the selection of SMG for the continued management of the venue."
Over more than 17 years, post-event survey results from center users were nearly 95% positive, he said.
SMG operates 98% of publicly-owned, privately operated exhibition space in North America, according to its Web site.
Of the 210 facilities worldwide, 64 of them are convention centers, Mr. Tober said in an April interview. Localities in which his company runs convention centers include Beijing; Atlantic City, NJ; Denver; Toronto, and Fort Lauderdale.
Global Spectrum manages 21 convention and exhibition facilities in the US and Canada, including Cincinnati; Richmond, VA; Clearwater; Des Moines, IA, and West Palm Beach, according to its site. It manages or is in negotiations to manage about 30 arenas, including the University of Miami's BankUnited Center.
Ms. Bower said she is not worried about any difference in experience between the current and future operators.
"I don't think that it's a concern," she said. The upcoming contract is to ensure "that we will be covered if they're not working out."
It should also guarantee Global Spectrum and Messe Schweiz's oral promise to bring in shows similar to Art Basel, she said, as well as secure a future with Art Basel itself.
"I want to make sure Art Basel keeps coming for a certain amount of years," Ms. Bower said.
She said she expects Global Spectrum to retain convention center staff as well.
"We always ask that they keep the staff in any contract change — and we do a lot of them. It's automatic that we ask."
Keeping workers is "always our intent," said Mr. Russo of Global Spectrum, though "there will be some minor reductions in the fulltime level of staffing."
Some staffers may not be allowed to take jobs with competitors, he said.
"The employees that are most likely to lose their jobs are the ones that SMG have locked up in non-competes," he said, noting that this would be the fourth venue Global Spectrum would take over from SMG.
All changeovers have gone well, Mr. Russo said.
And at the Miami Beach center, "Our intent is to have a very smooth transition for all of the existing shows."
Changing managers should not affect plans to eventually revamp the convention center, Ms. Bower added.
A consultant is analyzing "what is it that we really need to make our convention center a more lucrative convention center," she said.
Many have said the answer is a ballroom.
Ms. Bower said she would rather take a more holistic look.
"We're looking into it to see how do we put it together, what is it we have to add, and not get locked in on a ballroom."
Miami Beach officials in the past have hesitated to work on the aging center before completing projects for residents, but conversations about center renovations have kicked back up.
"We have been at battle with this. I want to take the battle out," Ms. Bower said. "We all want the same thing."