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[June 07, 2014]
Convention center plans upgrades to stay competitive [Orlando Sentinel :: ]
(Orlando Sentinel (FL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) June 07--Mobile event apps, a people mover and more space are on a list of possible improvements to the sprawling Orange County Convention Center as officials try to keep the facility on pace with competitors across the country.
The county plans to have a consultant develop a new master plan for the convention center, which is the nation's second-largest, after McCormick Place in Chicago. The plan would determine how the center, which has almost 2.1 million square feet of exhibit space, can attract more business and remain one of the nation's top venues.
The question, said center Executive Director Kathie Canning, is: "What is it that we need to be competitive ... what would be the vision to make us successful?" Orange County's convention center has long been a top performer, hosting more than 150 events a year and attracting more than 1 million visitors to the area. But it faces stiff competition from destinations that are continually raising the bar, according to Cvent Inc., a Virginia-based company that runs an online marketplace for meeting-and-event planners.
"As we look at all of the destinations across the country, there is a lot of investment going on," said Eric Eden, vice president of marketing at Cvent. "You have to keep looking at what the competition is doing." That includes amenities such as a new rail line that will help visitors get from Denver's airport to its convention center, a Marriott Marquis hotel near Washington's convention center and a host of glittery new lodging options in Las Vegas.
Orange County has asked bidders on the master plan to consider what the center must do to compete with facilities in cities such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Anaheim, Calif. The plan will look at the center's meeting and parking space; the ability of visitors to get from place to place; traffic problems; freight delivery; and technology.
For example: --In presentations to county and tourism officials, convention-center leaders have identified a "campus circulator system" as a priority, and consultants bidding on the master plan have been asked to analyze the idea. That could include anything from shuttle buses to a people mover similar to the system at Orlando International Airport.
--Presentations and bidding documents suggest adding space to the center's North/South Building -- the 3 million-square-foot facility with the soaring, turkey-tail windows. The building now has about 950,000 square feet of exhibit space. Convention-center officials also have floated the idea of a 7,000- to 10,000-seat auditorium.
--Documents tell bidders that "the Orange County Convention Center of the future should be a building that interactively responds to its customers." They ask consultants to evaluate "mobile event apps" that would give visitors access to personalized schedules, interactive maps and parking information; "wearable technology" for automated check-in; and wireless technology that allows "meetings to extend beyond the walls of a room." "All spaces in and around facilities, including adjacent hotels, public plazas and other meeting facilities nearby, need to have the technology in place to allow for streaming live content," bidders were told.
Taken together, the instructions to bidders suggest that officials want to create a fully wired convention village with places to meet, eat and be entertained. In a 2013 presentation to I-Drive leaders, convention-center leaders said that "clients now demand an 'urbanized district' that is easy to navigate.
Surveys show that convention-goers regularly complain about navigating the center and International Drive.
There's no way to tell yet how much potential improvements might cost, but based on information in documents, the price tag could reach well into the tens of millions.
The county's tourist tax on hotel rooms is one likely source of funding for improvements, but Canning said officials have had "absolutely no conversations" about that. The county collected almost $187 million in tourist tax in fiscal year 2013.
Abraham Pizam, dean of the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management, said it's wise for the center to seek expert advice about its path forward. But he cautioned that Orlando needs to make sure its focus on the giant county convention center doesn't discourage smaller shows that might want to meet here.
"If you put too much emphasis on the big and the fancy and the all-inclusive and everything else that we have here, you may scare the bread and butter: the little ones who come again and again," Pizam said. "We have to impress upon all the meeting planners that we have every conceivable size and facility [for meetings]." Canning said staff members are reviewing four proposals submitted by consultants. She said county commissioners will be asked to select a master-plan team within about two months. She hopes the plan -- with recommendations and a proposed budget -- will be complete by the end of the year.
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