Bob Jameson: Time is right for convention overhaul

Bob Jameson

For 20 years the City of Fort Worth has invested in the facilities that support conventions in the southern end of downtown. This was based on a long-term vision developed through analysis of market demand. The time has come to take our next step of investment in these significant resources. The last major changes at the Fort Worth Convention Center came in 2003 when the city added 350,000 square feet of ballroom, exhibit and related space, and in 2009 when the adjacent Omni Hotel opened. Another phase of work – replacing the “flying saucer” convention center arena deemed obsolete in a 1996 report – was put off for another day. The market has responded to the changes. Convention bookings have grown 80 percent in the past decade, attendance has doubled in the past five years and downtown room nights sold have doubled since 2007, despite the recession. Convention activity contributes to the entire $1.6 billion economic impact of our hospitality industry. Taxes paid by visitors each year save the average household $840 by helping pay for municipal services

Private investment in visitor-frequented parts of our city also has contributed to the growing appreciation for Fort Worth as a destination. Meeting planners choose our city not just for the convention center and hotel product but also for our walkable downtown, unmatched hospitality and authentic experiences in the city of cowboys and culture. Convention attendees fall in love with our city, share our story and have the potential to return for vacation or business. As Roger Dow, head of the U.S. Travel Association, says: “Travel is the front door for economic development.” Our success with conventions was underscored recently when the world’s largest organization of third-party meeting planners named Fort Worth its destination partner of the year – a vote of confidence from associates across the country. Now we find ourselves having reached a plateau. There is more demand than we can accommodate. Do we rise to the challenge or stay where we are? Great cities do not stand still. They move forward. A consultant hired by the City and the Fort Worth Convention & Visitors Bureau has recommended a path based on analysis of market conditions and demand. According to Rob Hunden with Hunden & Associates, who worked with Fort Worth during the last expansion planning, the city should:

• Tear down the 46-year-old arena and build a new facility at Will Rogers Memorial Center. • Replace the existing convention center arena with flexible space that would allow for larger and multiple bookings as well as an engaging bookend to Main Street and the Tarrant County Courthouse. • Expand downtown accommodations by 2,000 rooms with a second headquarters hotel and other hotel growth.

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With these enhancements, Hunden concludes, demand for hotel rooms would nearly double from 644,000 in 2013 to a projected 1.1 million in 2027.

The report also cited current shortcomings: • The walkable hotel package, despite vast improvement, is still too small to compete for mid-sized or simultaneous smaller conventions. • Some meeting planners reject Fort Worth because they must negotiate with too many small and mid-size hotels instead of larger and fewer facilities. For example, the 10,000 Texas FFA attendees in town this month stayed in more than 27 different hotels. • Fort Worth’s hotel package will grow, but if not managed strategically in tandem with convention-industry professionals the market could end up with more small hotels without another large, event-inducing property.

But let’s be clear: this report is not just about one building. It’s about economic development, jobs and extending the experience that begins in Sundance Square. Downtown Fort Worth, Inc.’s new master plan identifies the convention center and surrounding area as an important expansion zone, calling for improvements to this “urban blank canvas” of surface lots. Development would connect the downtown core with the ITC transportation hub, where trains could arrive from DFW International Airport within four years. It starts with the arena, which will ensure we have a place to relocate those events that still use the downtown facility and accommodate even more concerts, sports and other events that draw local and regional attendees. As a local newspaper columnist recently noted, it is surprising that “a city larger than Denver, Washington, Nashville, Boston or Kansas City relies on civic arenas built in 1968, 1936 and 1908.” Constructing a new arena and expanding our convention-hotel package is a strategic, methodical plan that makes sense for our city, where we believe in managed growth that is healthy for business and our quality of life.

Bob Jameson is president and CEO of the Fort Worth Convention & Visitors Bureau.