Given the pause to reflect that Seattle now has about its troubled expansion of the state convention center, I thought it helpful to learn from an experienced but disillusioned designer of these ginormous structures. Here’s what I learned from this anonymous source. It’s a warning not to get on this particular joy ride — and a caution about how hard it is to get off.
“What troubled me about the whole convention center business/financial model,” this source wrote, “was its self-feeding locomotion. Once a city begins to compete in the big leagues (not unlike sports) it has to buy into a whole multi-decade commitment. And the bar keeps getting raised.
“Decades ago, it was mostly about having a large floor area for an infinite arrangement of exhibit booths, because those exhibiting companies essentially subsidized the meeting events. They were often charged astonishing fees. But those companies were happy to pay. They sent their skilled salespeople out to the conventions to meet, wine, dine, and otherwise woo the doctors, dentists, aerospace engineers, and hospital administrators to try their products and services. Exhibit space ran the model.
“Then the truckers entered the scene with demands for quick off-loading. They wanted to be able to drive right onto the exhibit floor, off-load their pallets, maneuver easily around, get out and collect their fees. So then column-free halls came into being, with costs increased for both floor and roof structures.
“Next, the meeting planners got into the action. They started demanding “hotel quality” finishes, lighting, carpeting, etc or they would redirect their bookings to other cities. The convention center managers freaked out and went screaming to their boards for expansion and renovation. The ‘hotel quality’ bar was driven up by senior executives who demanded fancy amenities in rooms and concessions — all on expense accounts, of course, so funny money.
“And that’s how convention centers got larger and much more costly. On a per square foot basis they are among the most costly, as can be seen in the $1.8 billion price tag for the new expansion at Seattle’s convention center.
“It gets worse. Convention center managers saw that larger centers could steal business from smaller markets by having multiple halls and meeting rooms side by side, with their own lobbies, thus poaching smaller conventions and conferences. And mid-sized centers, not to be outdone, expanded themselves, as Seattle’s modest center has decided to do, doubling in size.
“The fatal economics in this game now comes into play. Nationally, there are too many convention centers, so none can really be busy enough to pay the bills (warning: taxpayers). Worse, to play in the big leagues you had to be one of a handful of primary cities that had natural, cultural, and eating attractions. Seattle got a late start but it has somehow emerged as one of those magnet cities.
“Meanwhile, the hotels and the hospitality industry became embedded in the whole model. Some hotels started vying for direct connections to the convention centers and touting supplemental spaces. Hotel rooms became fancier and costlier, to cater to delegates being paid to attend by companies whose highly educated employees saw conferences as a desirable perk. Professional societies offered continuing-education credits at the conferences, even though lots of people were really there to schmooze, drink and have a paid vacation.
“All in all, quite the interlocking racket.
“Much of that house of cards has been shaken by the (past and future) Great Recession and Covid and digital technology, which has demonstrated that people can meet and share knowledge without traveling. The whole model — not unlike what’s now happening nationally with department stores and shopping centers — will soon unravel. Some people will prop it up for a while, but the demise, as with the almost-forgotten WPPSS fiasco, is inevitable.”