Corporate Hospitality: Columbus Convention Biz Poised for Growth

Brian Ball
Aerial view of the Greater Columbus Convention Center, the Hilton Downtown hotel and the area for the hotel expansion (across the street from the original hotel)

When you think about national trade association meetings, you probably think about traveling to Las Vegas, New York City or Orlando. Those large destination markets create images of big city convention centers, large hotels, exciting urban dining scenes and side trips to wondrous tourist stops.

But what about Columbus? Even though many central Ohio residents may quickly dismiss the idea of Ohio’s state capital city becoming a draw for national trade groups, those who promote the city believe the region could crack that market in a few years. What’s generating those beliefs are a bigger and better Downtown convention center and prospects of a Downtown Hilton offering 1,000 guest rooms, the minimum size of a host convention hotel many of the mid-major conventions demand to even consider a bid for their business.

“That’s the kind of business we couldn’t attract in the past,” says Brian Ross, CEO of the Experience Columbus travel and tourism organization that markets the region as convention destination, “because we didn’t have the national brand recognition or the physical infrastructure to accommodate these groups.”

That began to change six years ago when the city completed construction of the 532-room Hilton and further bolstered three years ago when the expansion and polishing of the city’s North Downtown convention center got underway. Next up: the construction of a 26-story, 468-room expansion of the Hilton. “Now we have the physical attributes we need to host high-profile, national events,” Ross says.

The $140 million expansion and complete overhaul of the convention center that opened in mid-2017 boosted the square footage of exhibit space to 447,000 square feet, with 373,000 square feet of that contiguous space to accommodate the jumbo regional and mid-tier national groups. It also expanded the number of meeting rooms near those exhibition halls for convention business sessions.

Beyond the bulk space, the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority—the center’s landlord—ordered higher-grade flooring, hallway seating with cellphone and laptop stations, and higher-end wallcoverings, lighting and ceilings while elevating the quality of food service in the trade show hall, the hallways and banquet halls. And the convention has installed public art and focused on quality service to soften the feel and raise customer service throughout the center to four-star hotel standards. “We’ve upgraded the entire visitor experience,” says Don Brown, the convention center authority’s chief executive. “We’re doing things to make guests feel this is the best convention center they’ve ever been to.”

Welcome Improvements

The national, Columbus-based AmericanHort trade association has renewed its contract to hold its meetings in its hometown of 90 years as it continues to grow along with the local convention facility. AmericanHort Vice President Sherry Johnson says the group uses the entire facility, except for the Battelle Grand banquet hall. The association’s trade show and education sessions attracted 10,200 attendees during its four-day Cultivate 2018 event in July, including those from 50 other countries. “The show grows every year,” Johnson says. “We continue looking at how we can use the space here and maximize the space.”

The horticultural venues at Ohio State University and other cities a short drive from Columbus will keep the association here through at least its contracted 2021 annual event in part because of easy drives and adequate flights, as well as the social amenities Columbus offers. Attendees “really love the Short North and the vibe it gives us,” says Johnson, who reigns over the association’s event and exhibition management operations. Regionally, “there’s always something new and different.”

While Johnson says AmericanHort is the only top 250 national association that thus far has chosen Columbus as its convention destination, that could change in a few years after Experience Columbus, the convention facilities authority and a group of civic and business leaders banded together to woo the American Society of Association Executives’ meeting here for its August 2019 confab. About 6,000 trade association executives and meeting planners will gather here not only to talk about their industry, but to get a sales pitch on why each attendee should consider Columbus for their conventions and trade shows.

ASAE President and CEO John Graham IV says the group of association executives typically go to first-tier or larger second-tier cities for their conventions. Nashville, one of 10 peer markets Columbus most often competes against for conventions and trade shows, is perhaps the smallest city the association executives have ever ventured to. Graham notes Nashville had just expanded its convention center when it lured his group’s meeting a decade ago. That expansion and subsequent ASAE meeting “paid off in spades for them” as several of the associations took notice of Music City.

Graham lauds the Columbus bid for its unified effort of the public and private sectors and the improving inventory of hotel rooms in and around the convention center. “We like to have a variety of hotels in the [lodging] bloc,” he says, “because some people don’t like to spend the money, while others do” for the full-service host hotel. He says some groups representing nurses are more price sensitive while others spend more freely. “Columbus is very affordable; the hotel rates aren’t what they’d be in Chicago.”

He says the city’s location and accessibility by car and air, as well as a deep amenity base, likely will prove attractive to ASAE attendees from 150 cities. “Columbus is not well known,” Johnson says. “This is an opportunity to make Columbus a destination.”

Circle of Investment

The association’s upcoming meeting in Columbus follows the 2018 meeting in Chicago and precedes the 2020 event set for Las Vegas. “We’re bookended between the No. 1 and No. 2 [convention] destinations,” says Experience Columbus’ Ross. Thus, it’s hard to overstate the potential impact of the ASAE meeting as community leaders work to finalize the financing for the Hilton expansion and prepare to start construction about the time the ASAE comes to the city. “This is our opportunity to show these [association] executives the sort of community we have,” he says. “This is as big as the stage gets.”

Ross says the real payoff of the ASAE meeting begins in a few years ahead of the expected August start of construction for the Hilton expansion, which is set to open in early 2022. “You’re either working on additional convention space or convention hotel rooms,” he says, noting the first phase of the Hilton project opened in 2012, following the 2001 expansion of the convention center along North High and the 2010 expansion of Battelle Hall into a first-rate ballroom and convention hall. Those projects—along with the 2017 completion of the latest convention center improvements and ongoing parking garage projects—have pushed Columbus to No. 4 in its competitive set of markets that includes Indianapolis, St. Louis, Charlotte and Milwaukee. “But our hotel portfolio is dead last,” Ross says. “That’s the imbalance. So our focus now is to grow the convention hotel to support the convention and meeting space we’re offering.”

Brian Ball is a freelance writer.