Convention Centers of the Future, Designed Today

By Craig Guillot, September 30, 2013

By Craig Guillot

Look around and take note. It’s a booming time for convention center construction and renovation throughout the country. From Houston and Oklahoma City to Nashville and San Diego, there are at least a dozen major convention center projects currently underway. And it’s not simply the number of projects going on that’s most remarkable. It’s how quickly the design of the conventional convention center is evolving. The needs of planners and meetings continue to change, and as a result, architects say convention center design is advancing at a rapid pace. While facilities of the past were built as utilitarian boxes to hold as many people as possible, they’re now strategically designed to be functional, beautiful, efficient and full of amenities. The convention centers of the future are here today.

Thoughtful Design

Convention centers are no longer just about utility. They exist to impress. Many modern facilities feature glass facades, suspended banners and mood lights. Other facilities play up architectural elements and showcase exposed 3-D trusses, cable-stayed roofs and long roof overhangs. They’re also decorated with unique color schemes, sculptures, artwork, designer materials, and furniture in waiting areas and bathrooms.

Todd Voth, senior principal at Populous, an architecture firm in Kansas City, Mo., says today’s successful convention centers need five critical attributes: beauty, functional efficiency, urban integration, a spirit of place and sustainability. Voth says Populous designs every convention center with those characteristics in mind. From the front entrance and lobby to the bathroom facilities and large meeting rooms, he says beauty and aesthetics are as important as functionality.

Populous worked on the Phoenix Convention Center expansion in 2008. The new facility was designed to better integrate into the city’s urban core and reflect the spirit of Phoenix. Facades offer visual connections at all sides of the building. Cantilevered shading structures stick out over public streets and the striated stone stair towers represent natural desert spires. The firm also played a role in designing the Qatar National Convention Centre. Opened in 2011, it has a striking entrance designed to mimic Sidrat al-Muntaha, a tree Muslims believe symbolizes the end of the seventh heaven.

“No one wants boring old meeting space anymore. They want a space that is exciting and interesting where people want to stay for a while. We’re breaking all the rules that no one broke years ago,” says Voth.

Populous hosts an annual workshop called Imagine That where industry professionals work to re-imagine convention center design. Voth says attendees explore emerging trends, challenge traditional designs and consider the future of convention centers.Those reimagined concepts are being put to practice in cities like Oklahoma City, which recently unveiled three potential plans for a new $250 million downtown convention center, and in South Florida, where development teams are pitching plans to renovate the 52-acre Miami Beach Convention Center. The $1 billion expansion and renovation would include a retail component and a public square; it would be the largest redevelopment in South Florida. Other current projects include the $800 million Gaylord Colorado Resort and Convention Center near Denver, a $520 million expansion in San Diego and the construction of a new $220 million convention center in Albany, N.Y. The plans for these and other venues are architecturally impressive, expansive, strategic and unique to the cities and regions in which they’re being built.

Back to the City

One of the best trends to emerge in architectural design in recent years is constructing buildings that integrate into the communities around them. Brian Tennyson, principal of convention centers at LMN Architects in Seattle, says many centers built 20 to 30 years ago were placed on the outskirts of town. Not only was space at a premium in many cities, but some convention and meeting planners wanted a captive audience. The idea was to keep them in the facility and avoid the temptation to make them wander off the premises. Today, it’s the opposite. Tennyson says meeting planners use their destinations as selling points and delegates expect to experience the flavor of the city.

“When meeting planners look at destinations, they’re looking for a city that attracts people. People want to experience the city and not be stuck in a windowless room,” he says.

Vancouver Convention CenterToday’s centers tend to have a more open design that includes large windows and features that reflect the city and nearby establishments. The fear that delegates will go off-site has been alleviated by the fact that if the design incorporates the experience of the city, they won’t need to wander during important conference programming. Tennyson says meetings have also grown shorter in recent years with many opting for two days of meetings combined with a day or two for exploration. Some of LMN’s projects include the Duke Energy Convention Center in Cincinnati, the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle and the Vancouver Convention Centre.

“We always look at how a convention center project can better integrate with the life of that neighborhood because it strengthens both,” says Tennyson.

He points to Cleveland as an example. Located on the shores of Lake Erie in the heart of the city, the city’s convention new center—an LMN venue—opened in June and features 225,000 square feet of exhibit space that’s dividable into three halls. There’s also a 32,000-sq.-ft. column-free ballroom that offers spectacular views of the lakefront. Tennyson says the remodel and expansion wasn’t simply about improving the space; it was about better integrating with the community and becoming more competitive as a destination.

Cleveland Convention Center Senior Director of Sales Tony Prusak says the new facility features updated technology, higher ceilings, fewer columns and an updated design. It also has more energy-efficient elements such as natural-light features; Prusak points out that much of the building is underground, reducing the need for expensive air conditioning and heating expenses. The center has bike racks and a highly walkable location, and is connected to the airport via a rapid transit service that can whisk visitors between the two locations in 20 minutes.

“We’re perfectly situated between New York and Chicago, and we now have a facility that will just wow visitors. The new center better integrates with [the rest of downtown],” Prusak says.

Voth says new hotels and small entertainment districts often are built in conjunction with facilities. Because conventioneers usually have to squeeze in entertainment in a short period of time, there’s a desire to have it within walking distance. In mid-tier cities such as Louisville, Ky.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Indianapolis, attendees can find great entertainment districts a few blocks from the convention center. Even first-tier cities tout central convention districts as a selling point. New Orleans, for example, is a top spot for conventions and is known for its walkability, but its real draw is that most of its primary attractions are within a one-mile radius of its convention center.

It’s not always simple to create all-inclusive entertainment and convention districts in cities where space is at a premium and convention centers need more space than is available. In those cases, planners and architects have to work with the best available options to create new streets or venues in existing space to create a minidistrict. Having a few options immediately outside the convention center is a major asset for the center’s marketability.

“When we create a district, it’s about how to create a mass of activities around the convention center. It’s all about the experience, so they don’t have to drive for miles to get somewhere,” says Voth.

Improving Existing Space

Luther Villagomez is general manager of the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, a massive facility that opened in 1987. He says the convention center design team is in the midst of improving the convention district with the addition of a 1,000-room Marriott Marquis and a new parking garage with more than 1,800 spots. Other enhancements to the facility will include a redesigned lobby and entrance point, along with more amenities such as restaurants and retail establishments just outside the doors of the center. Villagomez says the city has created a solid plan to enhance the district without having to start from scratch in another location. A 2001 project expanded the center and added the adjacent 1,200-room convention headquarters hotel, the Hilton Americas-Houston, which is connected to the center by two skywalks. Opened adjacent to the center in 2008, Discovery Green is a 12-acre public park that features events and a natural refuge that offers an escape from the concrete jungle.

Houston’s 2025 Master Plan calls for eventually building another 1,000 hotel rooms with a hotel located on each of the four corners of the convention center. Other parts of the plan already underway include the development of a regional tourism center, the redesign of Avenida de las Americas and the addition of outdoor dining features at the Hilton. The plan is to bring more entertainment, shopping and dining to the area immediately outside of the convention center.

“You’re going to see [more] active streets once all that is completed. Our mission is to have more amenities to enhance the district,” says Villagomez.

In New Orleans, LMN recently designed some updates and improvements to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. As one of the largest in the world, the facility had abundant space and amenities but was lacking an impressive entrance. In 2013, LMN redesigned the front entrance of the center to better mesh with the surrounding architecture. A new 60,000-sq.-ft., hotel-like ballroom also was added with balconies, mood lighting and carpeted floors to give visitors a warmer welcome.

Shift in Focus


Cleveland Convention Center

Convention centers built in the ‘80s tended to be utilitarian boxes designed to accommodate a large number of people. Aesthetics, premium food, entertainment and amenities were more of an afterthought than a necessity. But with attendees being more discriminating in the events they choose and with meeting planners eager to please, things have changed.

Technology has become a critical component of convention centers. Ten years ago Wi-Fi was considered a luxury, but planners today expect and demand free Internet access for their meeting staff and delegates. Prusak at the Cleveland Convention Center says the facility was designed with 250 utility boxes to allow cabling to deliver that technology to every square foot of the building. It also has 500 Cisco Wi-Fi access points to ensure no one is left without a high-speed signal for a smart device.

All technology related to audio, visual, data delivery, electricity, cooling and heating merges into one main control room at the center. Prusak says another implementation is LED lighting that can change colors on command. “If your organization’s colors are green, we can change all of the lighting and signage to reflect that,” he says.

In Houston, Villagomez updated the center’s technology to be the fastest, most robust 3G-level system available to meet the Wi-Fi requirements of any organization. Now that most conventioneers carry their own smartphones that can eat up a significant amount of bandwidth, those Wi-Fi requirements seem to be growing every year. Villagomez says “any Wi-Fi” is no longer sufficient and that centers need to work with shows they host to determine what their bandwidth needs are and make sure the venue can meet them.

Food is becoming a lot more important to meeting planners as well. The days of dishing out fast food-type concessions or frozen cafeteria-style options are on the way out. Delivering the right meals starts with the design of the facility, including the dining area and kitchen. Meeting planners also are viewing dining in terms of sustainability and reduced waste. They want to know where the food comes from and what products they’re using. In 2012, the Anaheim Convention Center started a 2,000-sq.-ft. garden on the roof of the box office. Other convention centers compost all of their organic waste.

“Clients are no longer about quantity. They’re about quality. They want to know where the food is coming from, [and] they want biodegradable place settings,” says Villagomez.

Flexibility and Sustainability

Today’s convention centers need a lot of space, but they need it to be flexible and customizable for a meeting of 50 or 5,000. Contiguous space—or total square footage of a building that can be configured for one single event—is critical for many event planners, especially those with very large groups. Space can be spread out among a few adjoining rooms or halls, but it should be in an area that can be combined to what event planners might consider one single space.

Many large, modern convention centers have 500,000 square feet of contiguous space or more. The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans has one of the largest contiguous spaces at 1.1 million square feet. The Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center in Dallas has contiguous space of more than 700,000 square feet. Architects are using designs with fewer columns and more air walls that can prevent noise bleed and divide exhibit halls into smaller spaces.

Many centers are being built with technology that can reconfigure the facility in only minutes. The Swiss Tech Convention Center in Lausanne, Switzerland, is set to open in 2014. It’s being designed with Skyfold walls—a Gala Venue technology that automatically transforms stage platforms and detachable seating rows to accommodate a variety of events. With an innovative system of swivels attached to each seat, a computer system can automatically configure the building with the required seating. When not in use, seats swivel underneath the floor. It’s a cutting-edge technology that could be in more convention centers in the future.

When it comes to sustainable building design, Tennyson says the honeymoon period is over. Recycling programs, energy-efficient features and water-conservation systems are no longer distinguishers—they’re expectations. Green design initiatives have moved directly to the realm of cost savings as facility managers see that upfront investments can produce substantial savings down the line and pay off in relatively little time.

A number of centers now hold some level of LEED certification. Vancouver Convention Center, which in 2009 became the first LEED Platinum certified convention center in the world, features a six-acre “living roof,” extensive use of controlled daylighting, natural ventilation and radiant floor cooling and heating. Other LEED-certified facilities include the Gold-certified Austin (Texas) Convention Center and the Silver-certified Raleigh (N.C.) Convention Center, among others.

“What is getting more and more traction in the green movement is now all about cost savings. Green design equals energy savings and that equals cost savings,” says Tennyson.

Sustainability and environmentally friendly design is about more than recycling or saving on heating and cooling. Tennyson says as facilities have moved back into city centers and have grown to accommodate larger meetings, the focus has shifted to smart transportation considerations. The addition of bicycle lanes and racks, greater use of public transportation and more walkability means cumulative savings for conventioneers and meeting planners as well as a more enjoyable and less cluttered convention district with traffic and cars. At some facilities, such as the Anaheim Convention Center, visitors can even find bicycle-sharing services that allow rentals by the day or hour.

In Houston, Villagomez says recycling is a critical component of new-age facilities, and they need comprehensive programs that recycle more than just paper products and aluminum cans, such as programs that include donations of food and leftover products as well as building materials. Large groups no longer see recycling as just a buzzword. Villagomez says they want to see solid plans and things on-site to show venues are diverting as much as possible from landfills.

“People who are attending conferences today are a lot more discriminating,” says Tennyson. “The planners need a space where they can connect people with their surroundings. No one wants to sit in a box for eight hours anymore.”

A version of this story appeared in Collaborate magazine.

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