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Convention Center: Signs Pointing To Success

February 13, 2005

I know that people saw this report, threw their hands up and proclaimed that poor Hartford just can't win.

I don't agree.

I refer to a study of convention centers released in January by the Brookings Institution, saying cities across the country are madly adding space while the convention market is shrinking.

"The overall convention marketplace is declining in a manner that suggests that a recovery or turnaround is unlikely to yield much increased business for any given community, contrary to repeated industry projections," the report begins.

The decline began before 9/11 and is exacerbated by advances in communications technology. Overall attendance at the 200 largest trade show events is back to 1993 levels.

Nonetheless, cities continue the "arms race" to host these events, spending huge amounts of money to build or expand convention centers. Across the country, 44 new or expanded convention centers are in the pipeline.

That would include the large structure due to open on June 2 at Adriaen's Landing. Are we looking at a beige elephant?

The Brookings study is by Haywood Sanders, a professor of public policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a longtime critic of convention center expansion. He's performing a public service: Cities shouldn't be mindlessly chasing the same rainbow without having some assurance there's a pot of gold at the end.

But Sanders' analysis isn't airtight. For example, he says that new communications media have lessened the demand for travel. Not according to the Travel Industry Association of America. TIA officials acknowledge that travel has been flat for four years, but say all sectors are picking up, and many will reach pre-9/11 levels this year, with further gains next year.

Clearly, there are still a lot of meetings and trade shows. Yes, more cities are in the game, so the competition is tougher. I've been cautiously optimistic about the Connecticut Convention Center's chances for success, and Sanders doesn't change my mind. I think Hartford will draw enough meetings, trade shows, banquets and the like to justify the construction of the new facility.

Years ago, I put myself on the Greater Hartford Convention & Visitors Bureau's mailing list to see who was coming to town. The answer was lots of groups - teachers, nurses, history buffs, planners, actuaries, accountants, collectors, sheriffs, naturalists - the people who make the world go 'round. This was when the bureau was working with the Civic Center basement and some hotel meeting rooms. The Expo Center in the North Meadows soon followed, and has done well.

If the city could draw meetings with minimal facilities, I have to think we can do better with a first-rate facility.

This seems to be happening. Scott Phelps, president of the Convention & Visitors Bureau, said he is forecasting 20 bookings of conventions and trade shows in the first year of operation, along with 15 consumer shows, 40 banquets and receptions, 100 meetings and 20 other events, for a total of 195 events attended by 250,000 people.

In the second year, he anticipates this rising to 232 events, including 32 conventions and trade shows.

The bookings again are the groups you never much see: religious groups, teachers, a winter-road maintenance convention (send the public works department!) and others. Next year, the National Urban League convention will be here (Phelps and his staff have been aggressively courting minority organizations, which comprise the fastest-growing segment of the convention market). In 2007, the United Church of Christ will send 7,000 souls to the city. Phelps is going after the American Legion convention in 2010, which would bring 12,000 folks. Baby needs a new pair of shoes.

We draw meetings because Hartford is well-situated. The city is within a two-hour drive of 23 million people, in a part of the country where people are well-heeled and well-educated. It's easy to get here. It's New England, a top-five convention destination. There's plenty of stuff in day-trip range, from historical sites to the casinos. Hartford's less expensive than Boston or New York.

Also, won't it be great to have a major ballroom back in the city so we don't have to schlep to Southington or East Windsor for every event of more than 35 people?

If you'd like this to work as much as I would, there's something you can do. Get hold of the meeting planner in your company, club or civic group. Pitch Hartford as a meeting site. Call Phelps at 860-728-6789 and he'll send you some materials. Hospitality is a contact sport.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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