Earlier this year, a hosted panel of local decision makers was brought together to discuss future of San Diego. Much of the conversation was around the convention center expansion. If you’ve been following the local news, you’ve noticed much of the dialog is about the benefits of a larger meeting space. The conversation is often about the need for more space to keep Comic-Con in San Diego or the heavy regional impact, the tax revenues, or the attention it all brings to our city. At the end of the panel discussion, a younger, seemingly naive gentleman stood up to ask a question. The question was, “Why do we need a larger convention center when it seems vacant for most of the year?”I, like most, blew this question off as I thought this person couldn’t possibly understand all the economic benefits of this institution here in our city. The answering panelist rattled off the economic forecast numbers that we have all likely heard before and the discussion quickly moved on in another direction.
I hadn’t considered that question again until last month when I had lunch with a well respected architect, and longtime resident of San Diego, Larry Hoeksema. Larry worked with the local great modernist Bob Mosher and went onto take over Bob’s firm for the last decade or so, the firm of Mosher Drew. Larry asked me during our lunch what I thought of the “Convadium” proposal (convention center combined with a new downtown Charger Stadium) and this lead to his commentary about convention center expansions. Larry used the term “space race” and explained that U.S. cities have been in a race to out do one another for the latest and largest convention center. Larry’s take was that we should not try to compete with Las Vegas, Chicago, Seattle, and San Francisco. He believes this race is not sustainable or healthy for our city. At first, I admit that I was in disagreement with this conclusion. I have always been of the opinion that San Diego could and should do greater than it’s competing cities, and the only way to this was to “one-up” them wherever possible.
A great convention center was one possible solution I considered. I got to thinking about this outlook on another level, however. Looking into this subject, I found a series of articles by the San Diego Reader that begun with the title “Does A New Convention Center Make Any Sense?” By Don Bauder, March 25, 2009. This series takes a very negative and almost conspiratorial spin on the expansion. The basic premise is that we have been lied to over and over about the benefits of the convention center. There may be much truth to Don’s article but the fact is, whether the statistics are accurate or not, there is no way you can argue the convention center does benefit our city.
Working just doorsteps away from the convention center on Fifth Avenue, I spent 13 years watching the hoards of convention center guests patronizing the local establishments. I have attended Comic-Con with my family and we thoroughly enjoy what that brings to San Diego. However, and here is the point, bigger isn’t always better. For over 20 years, I have attended the American Society of Landscape Architects national convention that happens every year and travels to many cities around the nation. Last year it was in Chicago, and I noticed while I was there that their convention center is massive. It took me 35 minutes to walk from one end to the other. I was at the Las Vegas convention center earlier this year and the same is true there. Sadly, what I noticed at both was that the newest additions of the convention centers were bustling but the oldest wings were nearly dead, empty, run down and in sore disrepair.
This makes me think; people perhaps aren’t asking for big, they want new. If your organization is looking to stand out in the business community, you likely don’t want to house your national convention in the older, run down wing of that massively over-sized convention center. So consider this: According to the San Diego Convention Center 2015 forecast (on http://visitsandiego.com) of the 365 days in the year, only 190 days the building will be occupied. Comic-Con, our largest convention with 130,000 guests (4x larger than the next one in line, the Realtors Conference & Expo at 19,000) is the only convention that comes anywhere near the convention center’s capacity.
Also, the latest trend in immersive conventions is to occupy the cityscape. If you have been to Comic-Con, you have noticed that this is what makes this convention so special. The city is truly transformed. I might even argue that the best part of this convention is what happens in the streets. So my point, think of the possibilities: If investments are made in downtown, not just the convention center, to accommodate large amounts of people connected to the center, and if the convention center was upgraded to be truly a special city center – not just larger, but truly integrated into downtown, then wouldn’t this make for a more vibrant downtown and convention center experience?
Let me give a couple of examples for reference. Twenty years ago, Las Vegas was known as the casino or gambling hub, a great place for people who love to gamble. Vegas casino owners had an idea that if you could offer more, you would attract all spectrums of vacationers. Las Vegas added resorts, world-class restaurants and retail, with every level of entertainment. Las Vegas re-invented itself and saw a renaissance occur as a result that was truly unprecedented. Vegas is now a world-renowned hospitality center. Airports around the world have done the same. When I was a child, airports were terrible places meant for the sole purpose to corral people into airplanes. Today, think of London Heathrow, one could be held over there all day with the shopping and dining experience without any loss of comfort. Today, convention centers are mostly miserable places where people are trapped for a good part of the day. They stream out of these places and into the surrounding cities during their breaks between sessions for relief. San Diego’s convention center, quite frankly, is no different – miserable with giant barren halls, terrible food vendors, and very little places to sit or wind down.
Instead of bigger, we should set the pace for the future of convention centers around the country. Re-work the center to be a place for people to gather, to engage the adjacent city and community (not wall it off). Imagine a boutique-style convention center where people from around the world talk about their experience – where associations need to get on a wait list because it’s so great. Where it’s intimately connected to the great surrounding neighborhoods. Where when you come to a conference in San Diego, you truly experience the community in an intimate way. Where attending a convention is an experience that’s new, representing the future, not just the giant halls of the ghosts of yesterday.
Instead of size, our convention center should focus on user experience, on comfort, and connection. San Diego is known for great hospitality and outdoor lifestyle, so our convention center should accentuate this with built in great restaurants, entertainment, and most importantly a seamless connection to the great downtown that surrounds it.