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Florida: Daytona Beach has big doings at the Ocean Center

By Vickie Mitchell and Steve Winston
Courtesy Daytona Beach Area CVB

About 18 months ago, Daytona Beach unveiled a $76 million expansion that doubled the size of the Ocean Center, its main convention venue.

The project gave the city what it believed it needed to grow its convention business. The center now has 205,000 square feet of meeting space, including a near 100,000-square-foot exhibit hall, 36 breakout rooms in 32,000 square feet of space, an arena with 42,000 square feet of space and seating for up to 9,600, and a 12,000-square-foot ballroom.

“The whole reason behind the expansion was to attract some larger conventions that we weren’t able to accommodate because we didn’t have the space,” said Sally Gardiner, director of meetings and conventions for the Daytona Beach Area CVB.

But the timing of the opening has made booking those larger pieces of business a bit more of a test than expected. “The expansion opened in February 2009, and looking back, who would have known that it would open at the most challenging time in the country,” said Gardiner.

Still a number of large groups have committed, and several have never met in Daytona.

For example, the Coastal Estuarine Research Federation will use the entire center for five days this November; the Sports Turf Management Association has booked the whole facility for four days in January 2013.

Plus, an association and several sports groups have signed multiyear contracts. The Florida Fire Chiefs had planned to come to Daytona Beach as soon as the center could hold the group. That association has signed through 2014.

The cheerleading competition Varsity Spirit outgrew its longtime home in Jacksonville and moved to the Ocean Center in 2009 with 12,000 attendees. It is booked at the Ocean Center through 2012. The Team Connection Daytona Beach 100/UA Volleyball Boys Florida Fest used the center for the first time in January and has signed through 2012.

Between the beach and the easy access by highway and air, sports competitions have always been drawn to Daytona. The transformation of the Ocean Center makes it even better suited to the sports market, and with that in mind, the Daytona CVB is more assertively approaching that market.

A sales manager has been designated to spend 85 percent of the time on sports, Daytona Beach will be represented at three major sports conferences and trade shows in the coming year, and a new website will be devoted to the sports market.

“We have always worked the sports market, but we haven’t devoted a website and designated a salesperson,” said Gardiner. “We found we were attracting sports groups no matter what, so we thought, ‘What if we assigned someone to the markets and really worked it?’”

The stepped-up effort will also be aimed at groups that would use other sports facilities in town, Gardiner said.

The CVB is targeting national associations, which present a challenge, because those groups book far in advance and have not traditionally viewed Daytona as a good fit.

“National associations for years were not aware of what we had to offer in Daytona Beach,” said Gardiner. “They didn’t think of us as a viable meeting destination, I think because we were a beach destination. That perception should be diminished as the CVB brings in more meeting planners for site visits.

“We know it is an important market segment that hopefully we can develop down the road, but we realize it is not going to happen right away.”

Meeting planners who have seen the center appreciate the way the old and new buildings have been melded. “We took the original building and connected the expansion to it, but as you walk from the center that has been there since 1985, there is such easy access you have no idea you have walked from one building into another,” said Gardiner. A remodeling of the old center — to ensure everything in it matches the new — was key. “It is seamless, really,” she said.