Meeting Expectations

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Columbus is rising to demands of convention and business event planners.

Although billed as an investment that will bring more out-of-town events to Columbus, the $125 million expansion and renovation of the Greater Columbus Convention Center may also put the 23-year-old facility on the radar of local businesses hunting for just the right meeting venue.

"I think my clients will be more willing to look at the convention center where some have been predisposed not to in the past," says Columbus event planner Betty Garrett, noting parking concerns and a perception that the décor in the center is a bit sterile have been issues for some local companies, especially ones based in the Columbus suburbs.

But the owner of Garrett Hospitality Group Inc. says the parking issue has been addressed with the opening of the 800-space Goodale Garage that will be attached to the expanded convention center by an enclosed walkway. The renovations, which are on schedule for completion in July 2017, are also bringing higher quality finishes, artwork and amenities that appeal to meeting planners and the businesses they serve.

"I love what they're doing with the improvements," Garrett says. "It will have so much more of a warm look. They will bring in a lot of meetings from outside the city and local people will use (the center) much more, too."

Garrett and others on the central Ohio meetings, conferences and conventions scene say there is room in the region for more high-quality spaces like those at the convention center, so hotels and other venue operators should be fine as long as they give groups what they want. That includes ample bandwidth and Wi-Fi capacity for technology users, the latest and greatest audiovisual equipment, menus with plenty of farm-to-table, gluten-free and vegetarian options and trendy alcoholic beverages such as craft beers and signature cocktails.

But while keeping in tune with trends is important, success in the meeting venue business still comes down to offering top-notch products and excellent customer service, says Experience Columbus CEO Brian Ross.

"It doesn't matter if you have the largest venue or the smallest venue," he says, "you need to offer the best product and service and provide the quality that people are looking for. Then they will come back."

Ross doesn't see the bigger and better convention center hurting small- and mid-sized meeting venues that "continue to renovate and provide a wonderful product." He also notes the competitive landscape in Columbus is one in which the convention center's bread-and-butter is out-of-town trade shows, conferences and conventions while smaller venues cater mostly to local businesses and groups.

Downtown hotels will also benefit from the hoped-for increases in so-called "citywide" events that the convention center should attract when the expansion and renovations are finished. Such large conferences, conventions and events book hotel rooms across Downtown and even in the suburbs.

Ross says the people running those kinds of events are looking for a city that has an airport with good flight connections, a location that's a reasonable drive for many attendees and a convention center with the size, configuration options and technical capabilities they need. They also want a venue that's within a close walk of restaurants and night life-like the Short North and Arena District near the convention center-and the right mix of full-service and select-service hotels.

"Our convention center is wonderful the way it is," Ross says, "and it will be a notch above that after the renovations and expansion. It will definitely be something we try to sell to get more events into the city."

The 100,000-square-foot expansion will boost the convention center's footprint to 1.8 million square feet. That doesn't include the 70,000 square feet of meeting and event space in the adjoining Hyatt Regency Columbus that is also being renovated.

The expansion will include nine additional meeting rooms. One of the exhibit halls will be expanded from 50,000 square feet to 86,000 square feet, giving the facility four halls with at least 70,000 square feet to accommodate multiple events.

In addition, some of the current meeting spaces with hard walls will be converted to ones with movable walls to add flexibility. Other improvements include a boost in the center's data capacity that will enable it to accommodate more than 20,000 users with multiple devices.

Visitors will also notice the addition of hotel-quality finishes and amenities reflecting those at the connecting Hilton Columbus Downtown that opened in 2012, says Jennifer Davis, the convention center's senior marketing and communications manager.

"Seeing all the wood tones and the color palette of the new Hilton showed the 1993 pastel color scheme of the convention center had become a dated look," she says.

As for trends in the meeting business, the convention center is seeing companies cut the number of days for their events, says Sherry Chambers, senior director of sales for SMG, the company that manages the center. The average event now runs 1.5 to two days compared to three to four days a few years ago.

"People don't want to be out of their offices that long," Chambers says. "They want to get down to business and get back to work."

She says the convention center's catering service is receiving more requests for farm-to-table menu items, gluten-free meals and vegetarian options. Such requests have also ballooned at the Sheraton Columbus Hotel at Capitol Square, says Michael Larson, the hotel's general manager. The Sheraton even has its own herb garden on the roof of the high-rise hotel.

Larson says companies also now want to hold their meetings and events at eco-friendly venues. In response, the Sheraton on Capitol Square has replaced bottles of water with decorative urns in the common areas of the building. It also closely tracks its power and water use and works to reduce food waste.

"All of the corporate businesses are big on sustainability and green initiatives," Larson says. "They want to partner with people who believe and do the same things they do."

The other big trend, he says, is the need to provide ample internet bandwidth and speeds and up-to-date audiovisual equipment. The Sheraton has done that, and event planners say venues that don't stand the chance of losing business.

Regarding technology, venue operators need to understand that the days are over for when meeting presenters told audience members to turn off their cell phones, says Phyllis VanArsdale, owner and director of VanArsdale Management & Production. Instead, organizations want to use social media during their events to extend their message and engage their guests.

"It's now, leave your cell phones on, take out your tablets or laptops and involve yourself in the meeting," VanArsdale says, adding a venue's lack of adequate Wi-Fi capacity can be a deal breaker in landing corporate events.

Other keys to landing events are access to free and easy-to-reach parking and menus with healthy food options that are locally sourced, she says. Also popular these days are craft beers and signature cocktails served at networking events and coffee bars for meetings.

"It's not just, 'I'll take it black or with cream,'" VanArsdale says, pointing to choices that include artisan and pour-over coffees.

Another must, she says, is having updated audiovisual equipment such as projection screens that can handle videos embedded in PowerPoint presentations. In addition, more and more companies are recording their events and posting videos of them on their websites.

Garrett is finding that her clients like "anything electronic." An example is an electronic armband that lights up when it's time for an attendee to move from one meeting area to another.

"And every event now has a mobile app," Garrett says. "It's helpful in telling people their schedule and how to get around the venue."

At the same time, she feels event planners need to pay close attention to a client's event budget and "not throw something at them because it has the latest bells and whistles."

"People want quality," she says, "but they don't want something that's ostentatious and have to spend a fortune on it. … People have money to spend now, but they want to spend it wisely."

Columbus needs additional meeting and event space in these post-recession times, Garrett says, and the convention center expansion will meet some of that demand. She also thinks the updated and upgraded center will bring more conference and convention business to town, helping all the Downtown hotels in the process.

VanArsdale agrees with that, saying the renovation and expansion at the center will elevate the property and pull in more out-of-town groups and hotel guests. Downtown and suburban hotels will benefit, she says, and meeting venues that fill specific niches shouldn't see a drop off in business. Examples include Columbus' newly renovated Main Library as well as the Columbus Museum of Art, Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Mapfre Stadium, Huntington Park and Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

"I think everybody here tries to work together," VanArsdale says. "It behooves the convention center and hotels to do that because everyone benefits."

This kind of cooperation, which also includes support from local government entities and the private sector, has been the key to Columbus' ability to book new events and remain competitive with benchmark cities such as Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, according to Ross at Experience Columbus.

"We all work very well together," he says. "That's the biggest selling point we have."

Jeff Bell is a freelance writer.