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Hall of Fame, New Ballroom Boost Convention Center

Source: Bea Quirk, Charlotte Business Journal  

May 23, 2008

The NASCAR Hall of Fame and the Wachovia Corp. cultural campus won't open for another couple of years, but those investments are already paying off for the Charlotte Convention Center.

The hall of fame was a major factor in the decision by the Shriners Imperial Council of North America to hold its 2012 convention here, while the cultural campus was a particular draw for the 2012 return of the National League of Cities convention.

Visit Charlotte, which markets the convention center, is already 2% over its fiscal 2008 goal for room-nights booked at local hotels, says Mike Butts, executive director. But it's not just the individual attractions that are helping Visit Charlotte recruit conventions. The $157 million hall of fame project also includes the addition of a 40,000-square-foot ballroom to the convention center to supplement its 35,000-square-foot facility.

Butts says the city would not have won the National Rifle Association conference in May 2010 without that new ballroom space. The event is expected to bring about 45,000 visitors.

"Just the new ballroom alone gives the city a whole lot more leverage in selling the convention center to groups," says Sid Smith, executive director of the Charlotte Area Hotel Association, an organization of uptown's full-service facilities.

But it's definitely the synergy between the additional space, hall of fame and cultural center that is closing the deal on convention bids.

"Because of the new visitor assets, more things to do and additional ballroom space, we're negotiating with groups that we have typically not been able to book," Butts says. "They add to the allure of the city. We're not just a corporate city anymore -- we're a destination."

The larger ballroom and hall of fame were important factors in the Shriners' decision to come to Charlotte. Charlottean and national board member Al Madsen will be installed as president at the event.

He expects about 50,000 attendees because of the NASCAR-related offerings and because Charlotte is a "nice Southern city that's centrally located." The city is also home to one of the largest Shrine chapters in North America.

But there were other factors as well. "Visit Charlotte bent over backwards to work out the details and sweeten the pie," Madsen says. "We just didn't get the same 'warm fuzzies' from Tampa and Baltimore."

Operating in a highly competitive business, Visit Charlotte has been aggressively marketing the city's new offerings since they were announced.

Two years ago, it created a marketing piece titled "What's New in Charlotte?" that outlined new and upcoming projects in the area, such as the light-rail line, the trolley, U.S. National Whitewater Center, the EpiCentre complex and the Billy Graham Library, in addition to the hall and cultural campus. Whenever there's a new announcement, an insert is added to the booklet.

"We use every bullet available when we go hunting," Butts says. He adds that includes venues and offerings throughout the region, ranging from the Brattonville historic site to the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden -- "whatever distinguishes us and fits a group's needs."

Smith praises Visit Charlotte's ability to get through "the clutter out there in front of event planners." He cites the Visit Charlotte Web site and calls "brilliant" its distribution of iPods to the top 100 meeting planners in the country. The planners could use them as they wished, but during a two-year period, five podcasts touting Charlotte were electronically sent to them.

That campaign has ended and will be replaced this summer with a new marketing campaign, "Charlotte's Got A Lot!"

The selling gets more pointed when event planners and association representatives visit Charlotte. Then, Butts says, they not only see the hall and cultural campus coming out of the ground, but they can also see their proximity to the convention center. "They often tell us they had no idea we had so much or that the city had become so cosmopolitan."

Still, things could be better. For the fiscal years ending in June, Visit Charlotte is at 69.7% of its goal for convention center bookings in 2009 and 2010, although Butts says that figure is much improved from earlier in the year.

Those years "still look light, and I wish they'd work more on getting groups here then, even if it means having to discount them -- we'll make up for that with occupancy taxes," Smith says.

"They need to be a bit more creative and aggressive. The hotels are doing that to sell and book meetings in their own facilities."

The slowing economy is also a concern to the industry, but Butts says it might not impact large conventions as much as business travel, the mainstay of Charlotte's hotels, where occupancy rates are near record levels.

"Corporations will cut back on the number and size of their meetings and will be more prudent in their negotiations," he says. "But national associations will still have to have their national meetings. And the religious market -- always a reliable market -- is making a resurgence in Charlotte."

Still, the economic uncertainty is casting a shadow.

"We've got a wary eye on the travel budgets for businesses. So far, they are holding up," Smith says. "But if there's another change in economic conditions, all bets are off."