Fresh Air for Conventions

August 26, 2014

On a riverfront terrace with a view of the city skyline, it could be easy to take in the loungelike setting and mistake it for something other than what it is: a convention center in Detroit.

The riverfront terrace at the Cobo Center in Detroit, which is in the midst of a multiyear renovation project, opened about a year ago. There will soon be an adjoining plaza providing additional event space.

“There’s a higher demand for flexible space that isn’t an exhibit hall or a meeting room,” said Thom Connors, regional vice president and general manager of the Cobo Center. “It gives people a better sense of place when they’re visiting.”

While a smattering of convention facilities have had outdoor space for a long time, convention center managers and architects point to reasons for more interest in such amenities.

“Over the last few years, we’ve been hearing more and more from these people that conventioneers don’t want to be locked in,” said Todd Voth, a senior principal at Populous, an architecture firm in Kansas City, Mo. “I really think people that go to conventions are sick and tired of being stuck in a building all day.”

The Cobo Center in Detroit is in the midst of a multiyear renovation project, with a plaza. Credit TVS Design

Outdoor space helps visitors feel as if they are experiencing the city they are visiting despite spending all day at a convention, Mr. Voth said. “Sometimes they don’t have enough time to explore too far, but if you could just let them get outside, it gives them a sense of experiencing something beyond the walls of the building.”

Parks, plazas and terraces also help integrate sprawling, oversize convention facilities with the buildings around them — while giving the neighborhood some figurative breathing room, Mr. Voth said.

“Urban centers need open spaces,” he said. “We’re seeing more of a movement towards integrating the center and its surroundings with the community.”

One Populous project is the $325 million renovation and expansion of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio, an important facet of which is to give the center a “front lawn” through redevelopment of an adjacent park. The first phase of the 46-year-old center’s overhaul — rerouting streets to accommodate a change in the center’s orientation — began last year. The project is to be completed in 2016.

By 2018, planners envision turning the adjacent Hemisfair Park, site of the 1968 World’s Fair, into a complete district including cafes and galleries as well as lawns, gardens and other spaces that can be booked by convention groups.

“The center site and the park displaced a neighborhood, but now we’re bringing a neighborhood back,” said Michael Sawaya, executive director of the city’s Convention and Sports Facilities Department. In addition to the park, the center itself will have outdoor spaces intended for group bookings.

These are big investments, but they can pay dividends in the form of business that would otherwise go to hotels or other event sites. “There’s pressure for finding new revenue sources for these buildings,” said Ken Stockdell, vice president and convention center group practice leader at the architecture firm HKS.

That’s attractive to the convention center on the operational side of things because food and beverage is the No. 1 income generator after space rental,” he said.

Tim Muldoon, general manager at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, said, “You’re getting squeezed a bit with the rental income right now.” In late 2012 the center added a landscaped green roof that includes native plants. A riverfront plaza opened the year before.

Cocktail receptions or dinners bring additional revenue to a center, Mr. Muldoon said, and staying in one place saves convention planners the expense of busing participants to another location.

Since these outdoor areas often include lighting, audiovisual and electrical hookups, convention planners also do not have to spend more money to rent and temporarily install this equipment. “We’re seeing infrastructure being installed,” said Charles H. Johnson, president and chief executive of Johnson Consulting, a firm in Chicago that does consulting on the convention business. “That’s the trend — plug-in ready.”

Convention center officials say that once outdoor space is introduced, it tends to do well. At Anaheim, Calif., which added a 100,000-square-foot plaza last year that links the convention center to the adjacent hotels, that space has been used for everything from yoga classes to food truck feasts, according to Jay Burress, president and chief executive of the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor and Convention Bureau, which markets the center. Out of 84 events that took place in the convention center last year, 65 of them made use of the outdoor plaza.

Even in much chillier Detroit, Mr. Connors said the terrace had been used more than 50 times since it opened about a year ago. “People want to get outside,” he said.


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