CLEVELAND — Cleveland’s travel industry is poised to regain its position as a growth industry, despite the two-year pandemic. A significant growth driver is the ability to host events and conventions at Cleveland’s Huntington Convention Center. Opened in 2013, HCCC has hosted 1,500 conventions and events with nearly 2 million attendees, bringing $1 billion in outside spending to the region’s economy and helping to create 5,000 hospitality jobs.
But a lot has changed since the resort opened. According to Agreements, Sports & Leisure International (CSL), who studied our convention center in the context of industry demands, event planners now need different types of space – they need larger, flexible rooms that can accommodate modular configurations; outdoor area; and more natural light. They need a technologically advanced space that enables hybrid attendance and engaging on-site experiences. They won’t settle for less as they book events through 2030.
To stay competitive and attract these events, we need to expand the convention center complex. This investment will strengthen downtown Cleveland and support the region. Now is the time to do it. Competitors like Columbus and Louisville are growing. And, in 2024, we will welcome the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). According to the ASAE, approximately 20% of ASAE participants will book an event in the host city within five years – if the place of reception meets their needs.
We can efficiently and cost-effectively expand the complex to showcase during ASAE by fully utilizing the largely vacant West Block building, also known as the Global Health Innovation Center, in within the Convention Center. The structure, which is fully attached to and integrated with the Palais des Congrès, often serves as the “gateway” to the complex.
The atrium and junior ballroom on the first floor of the West Block were built as part of the convention center’s meeting space. An expansion of the first floor meeting space will add the large divisible rooms demanded by event planners and which our competitors already have more of. The former Medical Mart occupied floors two through four, a space that can easily be transformed into flexible meeting space, with exterior access and natural light.
The project would cost about $46 million, about half of which is being sought from Cuyahoga County. This modest $23 million investment is the best solution to two pressing needs for the county: expanding convention center space and solidifying the future of the West Block. Logistically, it would be costly and complicated to disconnect the West Block from the Convention Center complex and sell it to a private entity, as some have advocated. The structures share many systems, including mechanical operations, data services, and security monitoring. Separating the buildings would remove first-floor meeting space, reducing Cleveland’s competitiveness and leading to lost business.
This expansion and investment in the Convention Center complex will be a catalyst for regional economic growth, creating 490 hospitality jobs, $18.4 million in salaries and over $3 million in tax revenue per year.
The CSL study determined that this investment could result in a 23% increase – or $21 million per year – in direct visitor spending, compared to our three-year pre-pandemic average. If we do nothing, we stand to lose 9% ($7.8 million per year) in event spend.
Here is the bottom line. Although the Medical Mart concept has not succeeded as many hoped, we cannot let this past determine our future. The Convention Center is a regional asset that has reinvigorated Cleveland’s meetings and conventions industry, made us more competitive and created jobs. Failure to invest there now undermines the $465 million investment made in the convention center and the people working in the hospitality industry who depend on a strong convention presence.
David Gilbert is President and CEO of Destination Cleveland – the region’s destination marketing and management organization – and the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission. Through the attraction of individual visitors and a variety of business and sporting events, both organizations strive to generate a measurable economic impact for the community.
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