Chamber Calls for New Convention Center, Releases Study

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

by Marcus Elwell

Download a copy of the study.

The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber announced its support today for the construction of a new convention center in Oklahoma City. The support is based on findings from a study that evaluated Oklahoma City’s competitive position in the convention and visitor industry. The Chamber also released the executive summary of the study.

“We believe the convention center plays a vital role in the development of the visitor industry and in the development of downtown,” explained David Thompson, Chairman of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber. “This study tells us clearly that our current center is not large enough, nor does it boast the amenities we need to be competitive. It is time for us to make an investment in this industry or recognize that we are slowly going out of business as far as conventions are concerned.”

The study was completed with the cooperation of the City of Oklahoma City and State Fair of Oklahoma. Conventions, Sports & Leisure International (CSL), a leading advisory and planning firm specializing in the convention, sport, entertainment and visitor industries, served as the consultant.

John Richels, President of Devon Energy chairs the steering committee overseeing the project. “Oklahoma City made some very smart decisions in the last ten years that have catapulted this market as a visitor destination,” he said. “The intent of this study was to examine our competitive position in attracting the convention and meeting market; analyze the market demand and potential need for a larger convention center and the related hotel needs; consider the competitive strengths and weaknesses of the destination and evaluate the market potential for a new convention center and any related hotel development.

“The growing impact of the visitor industry, and the potential it brings for growing our economy was a strong motivator for this work,” Richels continued. “Tourism in our ten county region employs more than 32,000 people and creates an annual economic impact of $2.29 billion dollars. That is significant,” he said.

A second phase of the study, which is still underway, is looking at the overall strength of the marketplace in attracting visitors of all types and forms the basis of a Destination Master Plan, intended to chart Oklahoma City’s next wave of growth in attracting visitors.

“Our analysis shows that Oklahoma City has a truly unique and authentic culture and experience for the visitor that can attract conventions and meetings,” explained John Kaatz, Principal, CSL and lead consultant on the study. “We believe Oklahoma City can compete for additional business if facility improvements are made.”

The study found that Oklahoma City is behind the curve relative to competing markets. The current convention center has the smallest amount of exhibit space among the markets studied, and the facility is of comparatively poor quality due to its low ceiling heights, inadequate loading access, and columns. “The expansion in 1999 created modern meeting space at the front of the building, but there is something of a time portal when you go into the exhibit space,” Kaatz explained. “Meeting planners today expect the whole package.”

The study also evaluated meeting planners’ perceptions of Oklahoma City as a meetings destination and found most meeting planners were not familiar with the city. “The size and quality of the current space simply doesn’t allow Oklahoma City to compete for many shows, so a good number of the planners have never visited or considered the market,” said Kaatz. Many planners did not have a clear perception of the city as a visitor destination with amenities for attendees.

Planners that had been to the city were extremely favorable of the destination, rating it as one of the top destinations in the competitive markets studied, however 41 percent of those users indicated their group will need more meeting, ballroom or exhibit space than what is currently offered in the facility. They also cite other concerns about the current facility, including the separate management of meeting/ballroom space and the exhibit space and the appearance of the building.

Based on the findings, CSL recommended construction of a new Convention Center with between 200,000 and 300,000 square feet of exhibit space; between 50,000 and 75,000 square feet of meeting space; and between 30,000 and 50,000 square feet of ballroom space. Based on the study findings, the cost of the new facility would be between $250 and $400 million, depending on size.

“We all went into this process anxious to see exactly how we are competing in the market,” said Thompson. “I think the feedback from our existing users about their future needs, and the reality of our competition paints a more urgent demand than we expected. It is vital that we make this a priority for Oklahoma City.”