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Digging the Future

Courtesy City Center, Saratoga Springs

The Sharonville Convention Center, 15 miles north of downtown Cincinnati, didn’t shift into neutral as the U.S. economy slowed. This fall, ceremonial shovels broke ground behind the center as the suburban meeting venue prepared to more than double its meeting space, from 27,000 square feet to 63,000 square feet.

Likewise, the City Center in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., hit the accelerator, not the brakes, as it moved forward on a long-awaited, much-discussed 22,000-square-foot expansion to double its meeting space.

As others mull their futures, many meeting venues in small cities are forging ahead, expanding facilities and building new ones to meet what they say is a pent-up demand.

“It became clear as we got into this that we have a loyal client base that liked being in the community,” said Mark Baker, president of the City Center Authority in Saratoga. “You could see it in attendance — when the convention came to Saratoga, it grew.”

“We do about 600 groups a year in this little, tiny building,” said Will Greiner, executive director of the Sharonville Convention Center. “We’ve turned away over 18,000 groups in the past 15 years, more often than not because we were too small.

“Our mayor and council have been progressive. We could sit by and say the economy is not doing well and sit on our hands, but that is not what they do. When this project is done in two years, if the economy is turned around by then, we are going to be ready for it.”

Saratoga Springs, Sharonville and Saratoga’s northern neighbor, Lake Placid, N.Y., which is also expanding and renovating its conference center, appeal to meeting planners for different reasons. Saratoga and Lake Placid do a hefty tourist trade, what with Saratoga’s heralded thoroughbred racing season each August and Lake Placid’s attraction as a former Winter Olympics site.

Location is part of Sharonville’s draw, set as it is on the edge of metro Cincinnati, not far from Kings Island, a major amusement park. The Sharonville Convention Center, which opened in 1994, has also been chosen as one of 10 model small-meeting facilities in the United States and Canada by a national meeting publication.

Construction won’t stop conventions
Because their facilities are in such demand, Sharonville and Saratoga have designed expansions that can be completed while their current buildings continue to operate.

In Sharonville, an addition is being built next to the current center; when the expansion is complete, workers will renovate the existing building. When both parts of the $30 million project are finished, about two years from now, walls and doors between the buildings will be opened, connecting them.
In Saratoga Springs, the 26-year-old City Center is being expanded by adding a floor and expanding out to its property line. Work should be completed late this year.

It has taken about a decade to get the Saratoga expansion from talk to reality, and during the process, the center’s staff kept clients informed. Still, “it has not been without some nervousness,” said Baker, although there has been no lost business.

“We’ve been very open and candid and transparent in what we anticipated,” said Baker. “Even as people booked three years ago, they knew every step of the way if there would be inconveniences and what considerations we would give them, such as allowing extra time for move-in.”

Sharonville’s expansion will take the center from eight rooms to 19. The finished product will have two ballrooms and a 20,000-square-foot exhibit space. Double doors will link the three spaces, providing as much as 40,000 square feet of contiguous space. The center will also have some niceties, such as a waterfall and a gallery with a veranda.

There will be more than 1,000 free parking spaces as parking is expanded on land the center bought next door.

The center will finally be able to handle groups of 1,000 to 1,500, a niche to which it has appeal. Nearby hotels are available to house attendees in the suburban area; there is space available for a hotel adjacent to the center but no plans to build one at the moment.

Associations line up to return to Saratoga
In Saratoga, state and regional associations, which represent about one-third of business at the City Center, are lining up to meet there, said Baker.

For the last 20 years, the City Center has seen a better than 80 percent return ratio of its client base. Much of the business it lost was due to groups growing too large for the facility. With the expansion, the City Center will be able to accommodate as many as three groups simultaneously.

Since the center opened downtown more than a quarter-century ago, a number of hotels have opened or expanded, including the adjacent 212-room Hilton Saratoga, which added 50 rooms within a few years of the center’s opening.

Olympic site upgrades conference center
Lake Placid, an attractive, small community packed with hotels and restaurants, eagerly awaits a meeting facility to match.

Lake Placid’s current facility, in one of the Olympic buildings, is outdated.

“There’s been a pent-up demand for the property,” said Arlene Day, director of sales and services for the Lake Placid CVB. “We have a great downtown and great hotels and restaurants, but there were some groups that had stopped coming because the facility was in disrepair.”

One of the conference center’s weaknesses was a lack of breakout space, which is being added during this renovation and expansion. One ice rink has been torn down; a divisible ballroom is being built on its footprint.

Ice can removed from another ice rink as needed so it can be used for exhibits. Old building materials were recycled; local and green materials are being used in the renovation, said Day, which is scheduled to wrap up in 2011.

New convention centers on the way
A number of small cities are also building new convention centers. A riverfront convention center in Wilmington, N.C., with 30,000 square feet of exhibit space, a 12,000-square-foot ballroom and waterfront outdoor venues is on schedule to open this fall.

 In Las Cruces, N.M., the steel framework was arriving in December for the Southwest city’s new convention center, scheduled to open in early 2011.

With just over 30,000 square feet of meeting space, it will be the second-largest convention facility in the state, according to David Hicks, general manager. Already, the center has booked a state high-school-coaches conference for July 2011.

Students in the hotel, restaurant and tourism management program at New Mexico State University, the center’s neighbor, will be hired as staff.

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