Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Convention center search: Reality

Before we continue with the convention center search, I wanted to pause to impress upon you readers the realities of the convention industry and the fierce competition within this particular industry. There's a lot of misunderstanding out there about what makes convention centers competitive over others. We like to assume that "bells and whistles" and certain special above-and-beyond features are what makes convention centers competitive. I've heard several suggestions for everything from having a massive food court in the new OKC convention center, to something like having a dedicated streetcar stop smack in the middle of the convention center and the streetcar tracks going right through the thing.

First of all I would argue vehemently against those suggestions for reasons entirely separate of this post. They just go against rational urbanism and they would hurt the project. The idea with a convention center is that it's like any other typical superblock structure, which means it usually subtracts rather than adds from the surrounding neighborhood. Think about the sides of the Cox Center that front Robinson and E.K. Gaylord .. pitiful. Huge expanses of dead space. I like to think of urbanism from this perspective: You can tell everything about a block from what happens on the sidewalk. There is absolutely no reason to be on the sidewalk in front of most convention centers, so in that way, convention centers and the usual superblock structures detract from the neighborhood. They also create a vacuum in the neighborhood, since usually the site is several city blocks that serve no real purpose unless there's a big convention in town, and the worst is when typically they create barriers because of their huge size.

It's possible that the Cox Center contributed more to the "dead end" on the south side of downtown than the Crosstown Expressway did, and yet that's what we've focused all of our attention on moving. Look at all of the superblock structures we have clumped together at the south end of downtown -- the Cox Center, Ford Center, and the Myriad Gardens, so it's no wonder that there's nothing south of there. In fact, usually a park can be creatively used to have the complete opposite effect that I just described with superblock structures -- however when you clump it together with other superblock structures then the possibility of that goes away. Because we put the park next to the convention center, instead of an urban park, we just got two side-by-side superblock structures that form a vacuum of activity. So instead of learning from the mistakes we made in the past, we're very very gung-ho to make these mistakes again. Do we do it because we think it's exciting and get a rush out of screwing up our downtown? No! We do it because we don't know any better and nobody else has mentioned this except myself and fellow urbanist bloggers (Blair Humphreys namely)!


The specific reasons I would argue against a massive all-encompassing food court or restaurant section inside the convention center is because it eliminates a key reason to venture outside the convention center. By including everything the convention goer could possibly want, we create a convention fortress. Fortresses are bad for urban planning. In fact, the fortress basically WAS urban planning back in the Medieval Ages, so in honor of Hamlet and Old England and Renaissance Faires (which mistakenly label Medieval culture as "Renaissance" culture) by all means, let's bring back cutting edge urban planning from the Medieval Ages, because surely it's better than the collective wisdom we've gained since then. If you disagree with this, maybe you are sane after all. After all, it's called a convention "center" and not a convention "CITY". But so often people make the mistake of creating a convention city instead of just a simple convention center because they think it's going to lead to more conventions. Wrong.

Same goes with the streetcar. By putting the streetcar through the convention center and having it stop right in front of someone's meeting, not only have we bended to an incredibly powerful special interest, but we've also eliminated another key reason to venture outside the front door and down those venerable steps to the yellow brick road (the sidewalk). The sidewalk in front of a convention center could indeed be an incredibly lively scene if we lined it with food vendors, eliminated dead plaza space that looks pretty in photographs, and put a streetcar stop just outside the front entrance. The convention goer wouldn't have to walk far at all, but he/she would experience that part of OKC nonetheless, even if only for a few hundred feet. Also, a streetcar cutting through the convention center would pose a nightmare from a structural standpoint. It would be expensive to find a solution to providing ingress and egress into the convention center for the streetcar lines while maintaining a decent level of heat and air control inside the massive facility. MAPS projects don't need expensive useless bells and whistles because that's just the thing that harms public trust.

The reality is that none of these things bring more conventions. Meeting planners (which there are thousands of, an ever-evolving career sector that's one of those new age jobs that didn't really exist a decade ago) have very specific criteria that they judge a city on. They are:

1. The convention center. Yes, they take into account the individual convention centers, but they don't actually weigh individual features. The convention center is more likely to get up or down consideration, either good or bad, no shades of gray. Meeting planners are not architects or engineers, or even urban planners, and they could care less how much money went into some preposterous feature like a state-of-the-art streetcar route cutting right through the center.

2. The city. They're also very likely to weigh in the city, so this is where you can win points for good urbanism over bad urbanism. I think it's a great point to mention that here is where these ridiculously unneeded bells and whistles can actually do more harm than good if you believe in my diatribe over how they can detract from the surrounding environs. However I'll admit myself that the consideration given to the individual city itself has less to do with what the city is like and how nice it is as it does over the strategic advantages of a particular city. For example, the best thing NW Arkansas has going for it from a convention standpoint is that everyone wants to get face time with Wal-Mart, so you go to their backyard..that's very strategic. Good locations, lots of involvement with a particular industry, a history of supporting conventions, etc..all pose strategic benefits. Oklahoma Dept of Commerce is always trying to spin its location in the middle of nowhere as a strategic plus saying that we're "in the middle of it all, on I-35 between Mexico and Canada, and within close proximity to the Midwest and Texas."

3. The proposal. The truth about the convention industry is that these huge meetings are so coveted that it's almost as if the conventions don't come to cities, instead, cities come to conventions. That's the truth. It's actually the city's CVB that in most cases has to apply for a convention, and submit an RFP (in the economic development world, this means "request for proposals") by a certain deadline for consideration. The OKC CVB pays to have access to a database that lists all of the RFPs that are currently open, and the OKC CVB is particularly competent at putting together competitive RFPs for conventions that are small enough for us to host. The RFP says it all. How much will they have to pay for rooms, to use the space, how much is AV equipment rental going to cost them, what taxes will apply to them, and so on.

To most meeting planners having some of these ridiculous bells and whistles are kind of like when Billy Mays would offer a 2nd free bottle of Oxiclean or whatever in the hell he was hawking, or a free Shamwow if you call in the next 20 minutes, or something like that. Don't forget that Billy Mays sold crap, not convention centers. In the hyper-competitive convention industry, the reason cities that people generally do not "like" such as Cleveland and Phoenix (although I love Cleveland, and Phoenix is making serious progress with its recently-finished LRT) can be just as competitive as cities that people generally "love" such as Minneapolis (as long as it's not winter) and San Francisco is how simple the competitive process is. In fact even Detroit could be a convention hit if only the Cobo Center weren't a pit, which is the first thing I would change if I were mayor of Motown (that and getting rid of public officials' free cell phones..which have caused them quite a bit of trouble). And just look at the two biggest convention cities in the nation: Orlando and Las Vegas. It's proof that even the crappiest, most horribly planned cities in the nation can become convention hotspots. It's all about what YOU will do for the convention. That's the bottom line.

And even if everything I just said is untrue and I was lying to you readers, what does OKC have to gain by selling itself out to gain a little bit more favorability in competing for conventions? The result we really want is not for more people to be forced to go to OKC for more conventions, but instead, we want more people to enjoy OKC when they do get to come here for conventions. That's what it's all about.


OK Dude said...

I think the convention center should have a few things along the street. They could have an Oklahoma City gift shop, a convenience store, and maybe a restaurant or two, that is accessible inside the convention center as well as along the street. This will allow the visitor to have an option of getting out in the wind and also add to the retail mix the city needs. I know in Chicago, they have a food court and gift shop inside theirs. It is disconnected from the street and is 100% dependent on conventions, so they only had three options for food.

Walker, Downtown Ranger said...

I agree. I think one of the better ideas I've heard for the convention center is just having actual mixed-use development along the facade, with street retail and housing above, and the convention center behind it.