The consultant Convention Sports & Leisure has had the difficult task of assessing the convention industry, and has worked up plenty of studies nationwide trying to help cities decide whether to expand their facilities.
But a story in The Oklahoman last Sunday detailing an expansion at Chicago's McCormack Place — one followed by declining attendance — incorrectly reported Convention Sports & Leisure had consulted on the project.
That was my mistake, and I offer up my sincerest apology. In assembling a list of convention center expansions, attendance performance and firms attached to expansions, I placed some notes about Convention Sports & Leisure with the wrong project.
The story itself showed the complicated nature of projecting the future direction of the convention industry and how each city, including Oklahoma City, has to carefully calculate its next step in the effort to stay competitive.
With reports of declining convention attendance, increased supply of meeting space and competitive incentives being offered by some cities, critics like Texas academic Heywood Sanders paint an unfavorable picture of the industry for any city considering further expansion.
But Greater Oklahoma City Chamber President Roy Williams, among others, say the numbers, especially the averages, don't always tell the full story.
Minor league baseball and major league basketball teams around the country have reported declining attendance. But both the Oklahoma City Triple A RedHawks baseball team and NBA Thunder have enjoyed robust crowds, Williams notes.
At the high end of every average, Williams said, is a performance that exceeds expectations.
“Oklahoma City has a record of winning,” Williams said in response to critics. “We seem to understand better how to make these things successful.”
John Kaatz, who authored the study for the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, and Michael Carrier, president of the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau, both say the city may have an opportunity in the midst of the economic turmoil of recent years, especially if other cities pull back on expansions during what Kaatz believes is a growing recovery in the industry.
Douglas L. Ducate, president and chief executive of the Dallas-based Center for Exhibition Industry Research, meanwhile, pointed out just how seemingly dismal numbers sometimes can be deceiving.
If Oklahoma City had tried to gain a stronghold in the homebuilding convention business, it would have discovered attendance numbers far worse than the overall industry decline because of the depressed building sector. But Ducate also noted that medical conferences would have paid off fairly well, as that aspect of the market showed only a slight drop in activity during the worst of the recession.
Readers of last week's story, meanwhile, responded with a mix of outright opposition to further involvement in the convention business to embarrassment over the city's current accommodations at the Cox Convention Center.
Anyone who works day to day downtown can attest that conventions and conferences bring money into city coffers. Even a regional meeting can fill up hotel rooms and seats at restaurants throughout downtown.
State gatherings have an economic impact throughout the year. Restaurant operators in Bricktown don't discount the importance of a Future Farmers of America conference that draws thousands of high school students from across the state.
Statewide and regional conferences also tend to fill not just restaurants, but hotels as well.
Competition, meanwhile, isn't just found in faraway places, but within 15-minute drives of downtown at the Reed Center in Midwest City.
The Reed Center is newer, and quite frankly, doesn't share the Cox Convention Center's throwback to the brutalist big box architecture of the 1970s. And Edmond is in ongoing discussions to build a convention center and hotel along Interstate 35.
Carrier, tasked with increasing tourism and convention business — and thus drawing outside money into the city — has attempted to compete for bigger conferences while warding off competition from neighbors.
During a report delivered to the Oklahoma City Council in September, Carrier gave a picture of a city that is holding its own in the convention business despite such odds.
Carrier said the city exceeded its goal of 324,000 room night sales and instead booked 417,000 room nights. Direct spending, however, totaled $190.6 million, short of the convention bureau's goal of $231.5 million.
Downtown hotels, he added, are showing the best occupancy rates in decades.
Critics of plans to build the new $250 million convention center, a MAPS 3 project, question whether the payoff will cover the investment. They question, if the city builds it, will they really come?
Advocates, including Councilwoman Meg Salyer, said that such questions dogged the original MAPS program in the 1990s.
Indeed, the Chesapeake Energy Arena — now home to sold-out Thunder games — once was dismissed as a potential black hole that couldn't be supported with the concerts, sports and special events being booked at the old Cox Arena in the 1990s.
Experts warned the odds were against the city luring any major league team, especially an NBA franchise.
Kaatz told the city in 2008, and reiterated last week, that it boasts an increasingly good story to sell to convention planners. Bricktown, the Oklahoma River, the Myriad Gardens, the Oklahoma City Museum of Art and the Oklahoma City National Memorial are all seen as key to a sales pitch Carrier and his crew can use to draw more business — if the city can just provide a modern convention center and the hotel rooms needed to house larger groups.
At a price of $250 million, with another $50 million or more possibly to be committed for a conference hotel, the convention center project is the biggest chunk of MAPS 3.
The most expensive item in the first MAPS, the $87.7 million arena, was built despite arguments it would go largely unused with no tenants. Build it, proponents said, “and they will come.” Advocates point out history has shown they did.