Canada East Chapter

January 01 2013

What's Your Story: Maura Gast

By Michelle Russell, Editor in Chief
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As executive director of the Irving Convention & Visitors Bureau since 2003, Maura Gast had direct oversight of the design, construction, marketing, sales — and now operation — of the award-winning Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas, which opened to the public, on time and under budget, two years ago this month. Gast, a past chair of Destination Marketing Association International, looks back over the last two years and reflects on the current state of destination marketing.

The biggest surprise about the new convention center has been how quickly it became very busy. There has been very little ramp-up time and therefore very little downtime, which is a great problem to have. The marketplace has embraced the building. We have had lots of repeat business already. In our second year, we did 300 events and welcomed a little bit over 200,000 people.

We had made a lot of assumptions in our own mind about how certain spaces would be used. We learn something every time another group comes in here about another way to use some of the space beyond the ways we had assumed. We have so much prefunction space. That was intentional. One of our most distinctive prefunction spaces is up on the fourth floor, outside of the Grand Ballroom. Groups that are around 300 or smaller are choosing to be in that prefunction space for their function — even a seated, plated dinner. There is a spectacular view there. The building is the height of a 14-story building. You are way up there. Then because of the structure, the literal structure of the building, when you are up on that floor you actually see the steel structure that supports the building that is part of what the copper is framed on; you see that jutting out at this apex. The steel is part of the art of the building. There is an elegant strength to this structure. That is the only way I can think of to describe it.

It is spectacular — beautiful by day, beautiful by night. All the outdoor spaces that we put in — patios, covered walkways, and big staircases — people are using them formally. I guess part of what makes me so joyful about it is how the things we fought really hard to make happen — like access to the outdoors — we are seeing people use.

We have gotten our base-level LEED certification. We were actually four points short of Silver, so we have gone back and resubmitted. We should find out probably in the next month or two — we may actually achieve Silver. The equally important part is that we are operating the building in a responsible way.

We attract a lot of corporate business, a lot of short-term, which is this market in general. We are still working on our headquarter hotel. We control this entire 40-acre site that the convention center sits on. There are about seven acres set aside for a headquarter hotel, for which the city is in the middle of an RFP process. It has it down to a short list. Hopefully we will be able to make an announcement in the first quarter. If we are able to pull it all together, that will open likely at the end of 2014. And then on the other end of the site would be where an entertainment project will go.

That is also the timing for the light-rail system to get into DFW Airport. Where the convention center is, we are actually almost equally situated between DFW Airport and Love Field. Love Field is in the middle of a major modernization project that will end in 2014. DFW Airport is in the middle of some massive upgrades. We are sitting in the middle of both airports, both of which are going to be serviced by a light-rail-line connection.

I think what the hotel certainly will do for us is we will see the mix change. We will see more true association conventions. We have really worked very hard as the CVB. We are putting the same resources in terms of attendance building to our consumer customers — event organizers — that we would give to our convention organizers. Because it is in everybody's best interest to see all of those events succeed. What we are being very careful about is making sure that we are not competing with our hotels. This is about growing the collective good.

In general, I still think as an industry we do a lousy job when we try to tell people what we do, because we refuse to use common language. That is still my soapbox. I think part of that is because the nature of the hotel business has changed. If you are the general manager of a hotel, you are managing a real-estate asset these days, whereas you used to be an important piece of the civic community.

That general manager of a major hotel held the same civic high profile in the community that the publisher of the newspaper did, that the leading CEOs did. They were all in Rotary together, or whatever. GMs do not have that luxury anymore, because they have become investment managers. There is an entity that owns this real-estate asset that is looking for a return. There used to be other voices in the community that people could relate to. Now it is only us [DMOs]. Then we speak this foreign language.

I still think as an industry we have to do a better job of explaining why other people's money matters. One of the things that I have been talking about still or lately [is understanding] that our business — the CVB world — was invented to save Detroit from the Panic of 1893. Banks were failing and railroads were going into receivership. Cats and dogs sleeping together. It looks a lot like today, candidly. You draw those parallels. So Detroit decided the way it would save its city was to get other people's money. They created the Detroit Convention and Businessman's League [and said,] “What about going after conventions?” In fact, it was that effort that led to the auto industry being in Detroit, because the Packard family was in Iowa at the time. They went to Detroit for a convention and said, “Nice place,” and moved their business there. When I have that kind of a conversation with an elected official — say, “That is why it matters when I can bring people to town” — then they start to get it.

That is the language they speak. That is they language they understand. That is the language they can go back to their constituents with and say, “Here is why we built the convention center that is going to lose money.” It is not meant to make money for itself. That has been the other conversation I have to have a lot. There is a reason why the private sector does not build these [convention centers]. Because they are not profitable. The center is to make money for everybody around it. Which is why government steps in. That is why there is the concept of public/private partnerships. They look different everywhere. In some communities, that is what is needed to get a rail line built. In some communities, that is what is needed to get a shopping mall built. In some communities, you do it to get an art center. You do it to get a convention center. You do it to get these things that your citizens probably want or will benefit from.

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