Big meetings are big business. Really big.
More than 1.8 million meetings and conventions take place each year, according to a recent economic impact study by PricewaterhouseCoopers for the Convention Industry Council. Those events involved more than 224 million participants and generated more than $280 billion in direct spending.
Buoyed by those numbers — and the industry’s demand for larger and more flexible space — an increasing number of cities are expanding their convention centers or building new facilities to capture a larger share of a growing and competitive marketplace.
With an expanded KI Convention Center coming online this month, Green Bay may have timed the
“We are finding a lot more things we can fit in now,” says Brad Toll, president and CEO of the Green Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We do have name recognition on a national level but didn’t always have the space to take some of those groups on before.”
This month, the CVB will hold the grand opening for the expanded KI Center, which has undergone nearly
$23 million in renovation and expansion to make it the fifth largest convention center in the state. The available space for meetings and conventions has expanded from about 80,000 square feet to 145,000 square feet.
In addition, the center will now have a hotel at each end of the complex to better serve the groups using the convention center. Besides the Hyatt, the center will connect to newly renovated Hampton Inn being refurbished by Fox River Hospitality.
The renovated KI also includes an outdoor area tentatively known as Packers Plaza after the Green Bay Packers donated $200,000 for naming rights.
The link to the Packers has proven a helpful marketing tool for Green Bay, Toll says.
“The name Green Bay, because of the Packers, probably gives the impression we are a tier higher than we actually are,” Toll says, referring to the hierarchy used to group convention facilities. “It’s helped us generate interest, and now with the space we can book some of those events.”
For example, the KI Center will host a group that was previously considering convention facilities in Reno, Nev., before settling on Green Bay. Additionally, the Groundwater Protection Council will hold its first ever convention in Wisconsin.
In fact, the expanded KI Center is already reaping some early returns. The expansion was originally projected to generate an additional $4 million a year in bookings, and the Green Bay CVB is already $5 million ahead of pace for 2016.
“It’s already doing what we thought it would do,” Tolls says.
It helps that visitor spending is ticking up in general, according to statistics compiled by the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. Direct visitor spending increased more than 5 percent in Brown County, growing to $588 million in 2014 from $557 million. Roughly 23 percent of that figure can be attributed to conventions while the rest is from leisure travel.
Northeast Wisconsin is blessed with many options to tap into that growing stream of visitor spending. In addition to Green Bay, Appleton is also one of the state’s Tier 3 convention cities — the other two are Madison and La Crosse.
The Fox Cities are also pursuing plans to expand convention facilities. This past March, the Appleton City Council approved a $2 million purchase of land for a new convention center in downtown Appleton. A $27.5 million, 35,000-square-foot exhibition center has been proposed for the site.
Another piece of the puzzle fell into place when ownership of the Radisson Hotel was resolved with its sale to Florida-based Inner Circle Investments earlier this year. The city is negotiating a management agreement for the convention facilities.
“We are anxious to get that concluded,” says Pam Seidl, executive director of the Fox Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It will help keep us current with our competition, all of whom have made recent upgrades.”
A new convention facility for the Fox Cities is projected to increase convention business nearly $5.5 million annually. Outagamie County also experienced an increase of more than 5 percent in direct visitor spending in 2014, rising to $315 million from $300 million the
While the Fox Cities and Green Bay compete for larger, statewide groups, the region is also home to several smaller meeting and convention facilities, including the recently revamped Oshkosh Convention Center, as well as scenic settings such as Blue Harbor Resort in Sheboygan and the Osthoff Lake Resort in Elkhart Lake.
The counties that host those facilities have also seen 5 percent increases in direct visitor spending similar to the Green Bay and Fox Cities areas.
A feasibility study conducted for the proposed Fox Cities Convention Center affirmed there is plenty of room in the market for both the new facility and an expanded KI Center.
“There is no reason to think that’s changed,” Seidl says. “We know the business side of visitor spending is picking up.”