TEAM BUILDING – Planning ahead – Convention sites in the New North region look to upgrade

Posted on Jun 1, 2012 :: Industries
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Mae Ibe is an expert at fielding requests from businesses and organizations looking to hold events in the Fox Cities.

Depending on the group’s size and needs, Ibe, director of convention sales with the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau, presents a diverse offering that includes everything from the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel with its ballroom and multiple meeting rooms to more specific venues, such as The Players Choice, which is primarily an expo space.

“It really depends on what they’re looking for – we present them with a list of options and they can choose what will work for them,” she says.

There is one option, however, that Ibe can’t offer right now – an expo and convention space that features full food service, room for exhibits, meeting rooms and more at one location. “That is definitely a gap we have,” she says.

That gap was documented in a December 2010 feasibility study, which led to the creation of the Fox Cities Exhibition Center Inc., which is seeking to build a $20 million expo center near the Radisson in downtown Appleton.

Appleton isn’t alone in its desire to expand its expo and convention space – Oshkosh and Green Bay are also in the process to upgrade its main convention centers. In Green Bay, the KI will expand its overall square footage while the Oshkosh Convention Center, which was renovated just a couple of years ago, will be connected to a renovated, full-service hotel starting next year.

Some may question the logic of having three cities so close together expanding (or in Appleton’s case building) their convention centers. But Karen Harkness, community development director for the City of Appleton and a member of the exhibition center board, says the projects can only strengthen the region’s economy.

“Organizations like to move around. Think about when you go to conventions, it’s not often they are in the same place year after year,” she says. “If we can present more offerings, it only raises the area’s profile” in the minds of meeting planners.

Right now, the Wisconsin Dells is clearly the state’s convention leader with its giant water parks and thousands of square feet that can be used for meetings and conventions. With Appleton, Green Bay and Oshkosh all looking to expand their offerings, the thought is that some of the business lost in recent years to the Dells and other parts of the state can be won back.

Those lost meetings translate to lost dollars. In 2010, meetings and conventions accounted for $1.3 billion in tourism dollars in Wisconsin. And the dollars spent go beyond the meeting location with visitors spending money on hotel stays, buying gas and food and more.

If the Fox Cities Exhibition Center is built, a study estimates an extra $8.5 million in guest spending and an additional 18,000 room nights per year would be generated.

“It’s clear the economic impact from the expo center would be huge,” says Harkness, adding that the study also took in account upgrades to meeting spaces in Green Bay and Oshkosh.

But Appleton still has a way to go before breaking ground for its expo center.

‘Slowly moving the ball forward’

After searching the Fox Cities for the site that made the most sense, the Fox Cities Exhibition Center Board of Directors identified land across the street from the Radisson Paper Valley. That site is large enough to accommodate the 30,000-square-foot center and it would be able to take advantage of the meeting rooms, food service and the Radisson’s other offerings. In addition, the Radisson’s owner has agreed in principle to run the convention center.

To make the center a reality, several pieces still need to fall into place, including getting Outagamie County to sell the land (the property sits adjacent to the courthouse and other administrative buildings and is used for parking); getting a signed memorandum of understanding between the city and Radisson in place; and getting the area’s municipalities to agree to a room tax increase to help pay for the center.

Right now, Harkness says the board is working with area hotel operators and municipalities to figure out how to put a room tax in place. “Our hotels are behind this. They know that the expo center will only mean more business for them,” she says.

As for the county, it has a list of assurances before selling the land, such as figuring out alternative parking arrangements.

“There are a lot of stakeholders in this project, but we’re slowly, incrementally moving the ball down the field to get it done,” Harkness says.

Expanding options

In Green Bay, the $19.5 million plans to expand the KI Convention Center took a big step forward in mid-March when the City of Green Bay agreed to a room tax increase that would fund the improvement. The Brown County Board of Supervisors also supports the plan.

The city will add space bringing the KI’s total square footage to 75,000, which would make it the fifth-largest convention center in Wisconsin. The new space will go up and over a nearby street and the Clarion Hotel and its parking lot so the city doesn’t need to buy additional land or worry about lost parking space.

The City of Green Bay will need to borrow about $12 million to pay for the project and Mayor Jim Schmitt hopes to have the bonds issued sometime this summer. Construction would start in late 2013 and the project would be complete in about a year.

Once the expansion is complete, the city estimates an additional $4 million will be added annually to the local economy.

The expanded KI Center won’t take away from other meeting spaces in the Green Bay area including the Lambeau Field atrium, Shopko Hall or the Resch Center since its competition is really the Frontier Center in downtown Milwaukee, Monona Terrace in Madison and the Dells’ waterparks, Schmitt says.

In Oshkosh, the city had its convention center ready to go – it can accommodate groups up to 1,000 – but did not have a full-service hotel next door. The City Center Hotel was in disrepair and Wendy Hielsberg, executive director of the Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau, says that hindered the city’s ability to attract meetings.

Earlier this year, the Rich Batley, John Pfefferle and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh teamed up to purchase the 175-room hotel and are now in the process of a completely remodeling all the rooms and adding a restaurant.

“We will have the largest hotel in Oshkosh connected to our convention center and we will now be more competitive when it comes to going after the meetings business,” Hielsberg says.

In addition to running the hotel, the new owners will also take over management of the convention center, which the bureau currently oversees, which will provide more synergies.

Besides the convention center, Oshkosh is full of multiple locations that can host big events, including EAA, the Sunnyview Expo Grounds, the UW-Oshkosh and the Country USA grounds. “We now have a full slate of areas to offer potential customers,” Hielsberg says.