CRYSTAL BALL TIME: Greg O’Dell, left, president, venue management for Oak View Group, moderates a panel on “The Future of Convention Centers,” at the VenuesNow Conference 2023. Also pictured are Laura Alexander, assistant general manager at Central Bank Center, the new convention center in Lexington, Kentucky; Ross Cussen, principal, protective design and security, Thornton Tomasetti; Scott White, president & CEO, Visit Greater Palm Springs; and Michael Lockwood, senior principal, Populous. (VN Staff)

Power Panel Lays Out Current, Future Trends

INDIAN WELLS, California — Boxy convention centers closed off from the outside are increasingly being replaced with innovative designs that connect to what’s outside while offering greater opportunities for interaction inside.

Greg O’Dell, Oak View Group’s president of venue management, moderated the panel, “The Future of Convention Centers,” on day two of VenuesNow Conference 2023 in Greater Palm Springs, California.

He posed the general question, “What makes a destination successful from a meetings perspective?”

Michael Lockwood, a global director with Populous, where he leads the convention center planning and design practice, called Convention centers a “building type that deserves a lot more love than it gets sometimes.”

“These are incredibly beautiful economic engines for destinations and once you understand that you understand the possibility of them,” Lockwood said. “It’s something we believe strongly in. When we entered into this space over 20 years ago, we had no portfolio, no concept of what we were doing and that was actually a very beautiful place to start from a design point of view, because anything was possible.”

Populous started and hosted a conference in Kansas City, called Imagine, that’s now in its 20th year, with panelists invited to help discuss a better process for conference center development, Lockwood said.

“Convention centers have gone through many evolutions, but we knew there was a better way,” he said. “And it was really great to start unencumbered, and hear from the industry: here’s what you should be thinking about, here’s what the future customer wants, here’s what would make my building better. We found that taking people out of their environment, taking people away from their facility, and just thinking about the industry at large, was incredibly powerful, both for them and for us.”

Populous has tracked trends over the past 20 years “and it’s incredibly helpful,” Lockwood said.

“Unless you’re tracking trends and understanding the data that goes into these types of buildings, it’s really difficult to (talk to) your client about the future,” he said. “What I think also is that if you’re designing to trends, you’re designing behind the curve. You need to think about where trends are going to be in five and ten years. These buildings take at least five years to design and build and then they mature over another five years, so it’s an incredibly long lifecycle that we need to get way out ahead of. By mapping trends over time, we are able to get out in front of this design, a product that will mature after it’s built into the destination.”

Lockwood said that in the course of his career, he’s seen “linear processes turn into very complex and multi-dimensional design processes.”

“When we see the more collaborative hybrid collaborative design processes that involve economic input, involve the community involved, the destination marketing, we arrive at a much better product. We’ve delivered many projects in that way. We’re engaging with the future trends, the community, the marketplace, economic destination integration, and we found that if you’re thinking about all these issues as you formulate a project, you’re gonna end up with a much different project and it’s going to be a lot easier to design and then to build. The budget becomes more accurate, becomes more real. The design process is more engaged. The community is much more engaged.”

As an example, Lockwood showed slides of Populous’ design for the BMO Center in Calgary, which will be completed early next year.

Populous had to take 200,000 square feet out of the building to make it fit the budget, “but the net sellable product was kept exactly what they needed,” he said. “We designed a very different product based on the trends in the industry and we created a very unique solution, but this is typically the job that we get when we show up from a master plan that doesn’t align with the cost.”

Ross Cussen, principal, protective design and security, Thornton Tomasetti, worked on the Javits Center in New York. Thornton Tomasetti was involved in the original design of the facility in the 1980s and 25 years later, it was in need of a refresh, he said.

“One of the big things that happened as part of that refresh were three major sustainability wins that we were involved in helping the engineering along,” he said, noting that just renovating a building instead of replacing it is often “overlooked from a sustainability perspective.”

“But it’s an enormous win for embodied carbon,” he said. “Often, in the new construction of a building, you might be creating carbon emissions, or maybe 50%, of what that facility is going to generate over its lifetime, so if you can keep the building, that should rightly be framed as a big sustainability win.”

Another win was the addition of a seven-acre green roof as part of addressing leaks.

The third was in bird safety, as the building’s glass façade was causing numerous avian deaths.

“The glass has been replaced for energy efficiency and water tightness, but the team actually studied (if there was) a way to make it more bird safe, and they incorporated some design techniques into the glass. They we’re able to basically reduce that hazard to birds by about 90% compared to what it was before and in combination with the green roof, it’s actually become quite a big bird habitat in the middle of Manhattan, won a number of awards related to that.”

Scott White, president and CEO of Visit Greater Palm Springs, said meeting destinations used to tout safety, then it became about authentic and local experiences, “which we’re always constantly trying to improve upon and advocate for.”

A new role that’s emerged for CVBs since the pandemic involves workforce development,” he said.

“A lot of kids are coming into the industry now, but they don’t have soft skills, and so we’re working with our community college, and working with our stakeholders in terms of how do we give them the right tools and resources,” White said. “We’ve done wage surveys before that teach the kids about what careers are available in our industry. it’s amazing how many don’t realize it’s accounting careers, there’s all kinds of other careers that are available. I think as a as a customer coming in, they want to see the organization is involved with helping the community kind of grow into this industry, from an inclusivity, from an equity standpoint, the diversity. We do a lot of work on that front, we’re lucky that we have a lot of support from our (nine) cities.”

“When working with convention groups, developing that local culture and incorporating that into the conference planning sessions, the food, the attractions, and so forth, that’s really important to the attendees,” said Laura Alexander, assistant general manager at Central Bank Center, the new convention center in Lexington, Kentucky. “On the flip side, you know, you also have to kind of just make sure that if you’ve got a consumer show that’s in your exhibit halls, some of the important things start right from the beginning, like making sure that you’ve got information on your website. And then it’s the parking. Before they even entered your doors, you have to make sure that they’re having that wonderful experience and it’s nice and easy for them. The way it’s laid out is extremely important. And we love it in Lexington. It’s first floor, ballroom; second floor, meeting rooms; third floor, exhibit halls. It’s all right there and it’s easy to explain.