‘Tricky Times’ for Two Convention Centers

How two CVBs — Visit Cincy and Visit Savannah — are managing group business during the transitionary period when their convention centers’ renovation projects are underway.

Author: Michelle Russell       

Computer rendering of the future Cincinnati Convention Center aerial shot

Cincinnati is planning “complete reinvention” of its convention district that will include adding 13,000 square feet of meeting space to its convention center (pictured). (Image by Visit Cincy)

Cincinnati has some exciting plans in the works — a brand-new hotel, yet to be named, to be built connecting to a renovated Duke Energy Center, adding 80,000 square feet of additional meeting space in the hotel and 13,000 square feet in the convention center, and thereby enabling the city to host two major pieces of business at the same time.

Renovations on Duke Energy Center start this summer — from July 1 to a projected completion date of January 2026, the facility will be shut down. “We’ve always been hesitant to call it a renovation. It’s a complete reinvention of the way… the southwest corner of downtown looks like,” Julie Calvert, president and CEO of Visit Cincy, told a local news station. She said that Cincinnati has had to turn away about $48 million in convention business because “we didn’t have the right hotel, we didn’t have the convention center, and I think we’re solving that.”

In the meantime, however, “we’ve got a couple of tricky years to get through,” Andy Conklin, executive vice president, sales and marketing, Visit Cincy, told Convene over a Teams call.

Since Cincinnati will be unable to host citywides during the renovation period, group business can be accommodated in the nearby suburb of Sharonville, which Visit Cincy works with, Conklin said, that has a convention center with several nearby hotels.

But there is also the need to continue to attract small events in the city that existing hotels and special event venues can host. Conklin said they want to make sure it’s understood that downtown isn’t shutting down during the renovation. “We want to say [to planners],” he said, “’Hey, hit the brakes when you’re about to send a meeting outside the region — we can still do it here.’ We want to make sure people realize that we’re open, we’ve got great hotel facilities and other alternate spaces, a great casino downtown that Hard Rock recently took over, and we have a lot of non-traditional spaces” that can accommodate groups. He pointed out that Cincinnati is headquarters for big companies including Procter & Gamble, Kroger, Fifth Third Bank, and Cintas, which is about 20 miles from downtown, and that their small corporate events can continue to be held in the city during renovations to keep hotels, restaurants, bars, stores, and other local businesses busy.

To that end, Visit Cincy is hosting an event for regional planners on March 6, geared to generate excitement about how the city is “retooling our convention district,” Conklin said, “and to say that we need you to book your small meetings in the city in the meantime.”

Bogart’s concert facility (Image by Visit Cincy)

Around 250 are invited to the event at Bogart’s concert facility for an hour of education followed by three hours of networking entertainment. Vendor representatives from hotels, transportation companies, and other venues will have table displays. “We aren’t charging our partners,” Conklin said. “It’s just a way to help them out.”

Savannah Tackles Construction Delays

Another convention center in the midst of a renovation whose timeline has turned out to be challenging is the Savannah Convention Center. On Feb. 20, the Georgia State Financing and Investment Commission announced that the planned 361,000-square-foot expansion of the center “will be significantly delayed beyond the projected opening date of May 2024,” due to unforeseen construction delays.

Groundbreaking on the $267-million expansion project — which will double the exhibit hall space to 200,000 square feet, add 40,000 square feet of ballroom space, 15 meeting rooms, and a new 900-vehicle parking garage — took place in March 2021.

Unlike the Duke Energy Center, the Savannah Convention Center has continued to host events while renovations are underway. Convene reached out to Joseph Marinelli, Visit Savannah’s president and CEO, to learn how the delay is affecting upcoming events.

“Unfortunately, we did lose one group for mid-August that could not be accommodated” because of the renovation project delay, Marinelli told Convene via email. “However, we are working closely with all of our current customers to either retrofit them into the existing space or by helping them to find alternative dates.”

Marinelli is upbeat about ongoing conversations with clients despite the fact that the project’s expected completion date is currently unknown. “Our model in Savannah is built on a foundation where our Visit Savannah and convention center sales and services people build strong relationships with our customers,” he said. “We work hard to ensure that we understand their priorities and primary objectives for their events when in our city. So, while this news was somewhat unexpected, those relationships — through regular and ongoing communications — have been key.”

Savannah Convention Center rendering.

Savannah Convention Center rendering (Images by Visit Savannah)

In addition, Marinelli said, he’s been working very closely with Kelvin Moore, the center’s new general manager, “and our teams to make contact with each and every customer that is affected in some way. Although he just started a few weeks ago, Kelvin is already a terrific addition to our Savannah team.”

Marinelli said Visit Savannah is looking forward to a bright future once the expansion is completed, which “helps to make Savannah an attractive destination to a lot of groups that were too big for us in the past.” The CVB has already closed on 34-36 new regional and national conventions for future years “that are looking for a new destination for their programs,” he said.

What Marinelli has learned as a result of this challenge, he said, is “really amazing: When you’re working together, folks want to be flexible and help to find solutions.”

Michelle Russell is Convene‘s editor in chief.

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