All you want to know about convention centers

April 16th, 2010 by Ken

That’s what members of the Lacey City Council wanted to know, and so they invited  John Christison, president and CEO of the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, to give them an overview on conference and convention centers.

Christison said they had to get the terminology right.   A convention center has large areas of exhibit space and attracts national and international conventions.   A conference center has a ballroom and breakout rooms and attracts national and regional conferences.   A true community center is built to house local as well as out of town visitors.

Christison said there are 23 convention and conference centers in Washington State and 99 percent of them lose money.  “At the operations level these centers lose money because of operation costs and debt services,” he said.  “But that doesn’t make them a bad investment.”

Just like parks and libraries, he said, convention and conference centers add to the quality of life in a community.

Christison said that centers can make money.  “It’s in the anciliary revenues,” he said.  “It’s in the taxes collected, in the expenditures of  the delegates and it’s being an anchor for other businesses,” he said.

He pointed to the Washington State Convention and Trade Center as an example.  It has parking for 1600 cars and charges $25 per day for parking.  “There’s no free parking anywhere in Seattle,” he said.  The center made $20 million dollars last year from food service.  The costs average $55 per meal.   And, the trade center gets revenue from 75,000 square feet of retail space that it leases out.

There is a glut of conference centers in the current market.  After the law creating Public Facility Districts was passed, several cities jumped into the fray and created their own centers, including Yakima, Spokane, Vancouver and Lynnwood.

An effort on the part of the City of Olympia failed.  Christison said “There didn’t seem to be the political will in Olympia to make it happen.’  He said.  “They were unrealistic in their expectations and weren’t willing to work with a private developer with incentives like tax breaks.” 

Before Lacey begins to think about a conference center it needs to do some planning.   Christison suggested that the city hire a firm to do a feasibility study.  That should also include an architect to give the city some idea of the cost of the facility.  And finally it should have a financial expert develop a business plan.

“What’s that going to cost,” asked Lacey Mayor Tom Nelson.  “Between $100,000 and $200,000,” came the reply.

After more discussion regarding location, amenities and time frames, the Lacey council agreed to look at the issue at a later date.

“We need to see if we have the political will,” Mayor Nelson said.

Posted in Business, Local Politics, The Real News

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