Big convention center holds big hopes in D.C.

Washington: The city's new center, which opens this month, has booked 400 events through 2018 and expects delegates to pump $328.5 million into the economy annually.

March 23, 2003|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON — The new Washington Convention Center is mammoth -- 2.3 million square feet, enough to hold six NFL football fields or four jumbo jets.

It sprawls over six blocks.

Its price tag is astronomical, too, at $833.9 million.

Washington is betting that the new center -- three times the size of its old one and among the nation's 10 biggest -- will catapult the city into the front ranks of the convention business, pumping as much as $328.5 million into the city's economy annually, from delegate spending alone.

With its grand opening set for next weekend, it has booked nearly 400 events through 2018, threatening to take business away from Baltimore's Convention Center and others.

"I would say that building the new venue in Washington is an attempt to solidify Washington as a first-tier trade show host city," said Michael Hughes, director of research for Tradeshow Week magazine, based in Los Angeles. "Washington would primarily be competing for major association trade shows and conventions, which tend to rotate around the country and go to different cities each year."

Washington's new center has 725,000 square feet of exhibition space, 70 meeting rooms totaling 125,000 square feet and a 52,000-square-foot ballroom that can seat 5,000 people for a meeting and 3,000 for lunch.

Its first event, a technology trade show for government professionals April 8-10, is expected to attract 20,000.

Baltimore's center is about half as big, at 1.2 million square feet, including 300,000 square feet of exhibition space, 85,000 square feet of meeting rooms and a 36,000-square-foot ballroom.

Washington's new center is opening as Baltimore's convention business declines and its convention bureau is racked with turmoil.

Carroll R. Armstrong, head of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association for seven years, resigned under pressure last month after a scathing review of his agency found hotel booking numbers had been inflated and incentive bonuses partly based on faulty numbers.

Convention and hotel bookings have fallen. During the first half of the fiscal year, BACVA's hotel room bookings were 62 percent lower than in the year-ago period.

And the Convention Center's operating deficit is expected to more than double this year and grow again in fiscal 2004, bringing the two-year loss to $10.3 million, according to a legislative report issued last month.

The Washington center also is opening amid fiercer competition than ever among convention centers, with new ones popping up while the convention business stagnates. From August 2001 through July 2002, 11 million square feet of new space became available through new convention centers or expansions. Twenty new centers and 60 expansions are under way.

"It's really tight for the industry right now, with little evidence that it's going to get better soon," said Heywood T. Sanders, professor and director of the public administration division at the University of Texas, San Antonio.

"We know, as in the case of the Washington center, there's lots more space coming on the market. We can only see how they end up performing and how many of them actually do the kind of business that they were forecast or predicted to do."

Even before its opening, Washington's new center is producing results, officials said. Of its 400 bookings, nearly half are national events, which bring large numbers and generate the most spending, said Tony Robinson, director of public affairs for the Washington Convention Center Authority.

"We estimate we're going to average about 125 total events a year," Robinson said. "We really are moving from about 20 national events a year to 30 or more a year. That's really why we built the building. The idea is that you're getting large association-type meetings."

The center is winning business from conventions that Washington's 20-year-old center wasn't able to book because it lacked exhibition space. Now, with three-quarters of a million square feet of exhibition space, that shouldn't be a problem.

"Many conventions do massive, massive exhibits, so now we have space to host these shows," Robinson said. "We can do any number of things in the space and are only limited by the imagination of those coming.

"Every 30 feet we have a utility box with gas, water and the Internet. Just about anything you can think of can be done in these spaces. From an operational point of view, at the old center we only had 12 loading docks and could do only one large show at a time. Now we have 70 loading docks and can do three large shows at a time."

One example is an Army show that is scheduled for October.

"We did not have the exhibit space to accommodate all of their exhibits," Robinson said. "They're showing off helicopters, planes, tanks and you need a lot of space to do that. ... Before they couldn't come because we didn't have the space."

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