Visiting the United States in the early 19th century, French statesman Alexis de Tocqueville was struck by the gregarious nature of its inhabitants: "Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition," he wrote in his classic Democracy in America, "are forever forming associations."
Nearly two centuries later, some 87,000 U.S. associations represent everything from retired Americans to hardware manufacturers to hand surgeons -- and new ones form at the rate of 1,000 a year. The proliferation has fueled explosive growth in the meetings industry, now $83 billion a year, and set off a high-stakes, nationwide race to build bigger, better convention centers.
From Atlantic City to Anaheim, from Houston to Honolulu, from the great metropolises to middling cities, lawmakers see gold in the multimillion dollar concrete, steel and glass mono-liths. Increasingly, they're viewed as downtown redevelopment anchors that will attract hordes of free-spending business travelers, pump millions into cash-hungry cities, fill hotel rooms, restaurants, shops and tax coffers, create thousands of jobs and stimulate other development.
The building boom has more than tripled the number of convention centers since 1980, to some 400, according to industry experts, while expanding exhibit space more than 40 percent in the past decade alone.
Such rampant convention fever reflects steady growth in conventions as well as trade shows, which bring together buyers and sellers in high-tech industries such as computers, telecommunications and medical equipment, experts say.
"Almost everyplace in the country is getting on the bandwagon in a very serious way," says Heywood Sanders, an urban administration professor at Trinity University in San Antonio who has studied convention center development for years. "They look at other cities and say, 'Hey, I can play this game too.' "
Indeed, as the Baltimore Convention Center undergoes a $151 million expansion and renovation that will more than double exhibit space to 300,000 square feet, about two dozen other cities are building new centers or expanding existing ones, and even more plan to do so.
Expansions of centers in traditional heavyweight convention hubs like Los Angeles, Chicago and New Orleans have or soon will create exhibit spaces from 1 million to more than 2.2 million square feet. At the same time, scores of upstart cities with little or no convention history, such as Greensboro, N.C., and Mobile, Ala., are banking on smaller versions to attract a share of the estimated 73 million people who at tend large gatherings nationwide each year.
But Sanders and other experts question whether demand can sustain so many new and expanded convention centers and deliver the anticipated economic windfall in a fiercely competitive marketplace.
"From a market perspective, certainly there will be shakeouts in terms of winners and losers," says Rick Wolffe, an analyst with Deloitte & Touche Consulting Group and co-author of an industry-commissioned 1995 study on convention centers. "It's like every city's trying to keep up with the Joneses, and the competition between communities is incredibly fierce."
A 1994 study commissioned by the American Society of Association Executives sounded a similar warning, concluding that there's a 40 percent chance of a major "downward spiral" -- and numerous costly failures -- in the convention industry by early in the 21st century.
Nonetheless, the rush to cash in on the convention business plunges ahead at an unprecedented rate. And it comes at a time when the industry is undergoing fundamental changes.
To many, conventions may still conjure images of armies of delegates wearing funny-looking hats, keeping bars busy as they carouse downtowns. The stereotype dies hard. In reality, the industry has grown vastly more sophisticated, serious and business-oriented.
Associations, representing virtually every industry, profession, cause and interest, account for some 70 percent of convention ** business, according to the American Society of Association Executives. And, popular opinion notwithstanding, their gatherings typically resemble college classes more than junkets.
No less than 90 percent of them provide continuing education for their members, and experts predict associations will emerge as the No. 1 provider of continuing education for adults within the next three years. Some have even begun testing convention delegates after presentations to ensure they got the gist -- and in fact attended scheduled meetings instead of playing golf.
"The way I used to count my success at a meeting was by the number of people at the bar at the time of a session," says Roy B. Evans, executive vice president of the Professional Convention Management Association, a national organization of convention coordinators, managers and chief executives at nonprofits.