Now a year old, Wilmington Convention Center delivering on promise
December 9, 2011By Jenny Callison
A year after opening its doors, Wilmington’s Convention Center is doing what local tourism officials hoped: boosting visitor numbers and making a significant impact on the area’s economy.
The facility, more than 90,000 square feet of exhibit and congregating space, hosted its first event in mid-November of 2010, and has since lured conventions, trade shows and expos, weddings and military balls. And it’s gotten good word of mouth from customers.
“We know that ten convention-type groups that came to Wilmington this past year were a direct result of our having the new convention center,” said Kim Hufham, president and CEO of the Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Of those, we have the potential of rebooking six for future events.”
Construction of the convention center was financed through a Room Occupancy Tax (ROT) approved by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2003. The ROT provides the revenue for continued operations of the facility.
“There is a misperception among some area residents that property taxes fund the convention center,” said city spokeswoman Malissa Talbert. “All of its funding comes through the ROT; those funds cannot be used for anything else. The legislation even specified that the convention center had to be built downtown.”
Building this kind of facility was a controversial issue in Wilmington for a number of years, but the project finally got the go-ahead from local officials. City council voted to work with facility management firm SMG, based in West Conshohocken, Pa., on development of the convention center. SMG subsequently was given a three-year management contract.
“Our firm was selected because of our success managing other convention centers,” explained general manager Susan Eaton, who began her work with the Wilmington project a year before the facility opened.
“We have expertise in food and beverage service, health and cleanliness, and we have a liquor license. From the city’s point of view, it’s easier for the convention center to do business with one contractor.”
Talbert said that planning for the convention center included developing financial projections and estimated revenues that the center would generate, both with and without an adjacent convention hotel. Plans aimed specifically at the mid-size market, with its geographic target being the southeastern United States.
“We studied whether the convention center would provide economic stimulus to the community, and if so, what that economic impact would be,” she said. “A common misunderstanding is that convention centers should be self-sustaining. They are not designed to generate a profit, but to bring outside groups to town that will have a good experience, spend money at hotels, restaurants, and local businesses, and ideally, return again.”
Hufham and her staff at the convention and visitors bureau have tracked the groups that booked the convention center through their agency.
“From all the leads we pursued, we have commitments from more than 25 groups who have booked the convention center and represent more than 9,000 room nights,” she said. Based on a conservative multiplier of 2.5, these bookings will generate more than an $18 million impact on the Wilmington and beaches area.”
That impact calculation does not include the local shows and expos, weddings, military balls, and sporting events that are booked directly with the convention center. Eaton has been pleasantly surprised at the variety of groups and activities the center has attracted, including religious gatherings, musical shows and the large FedCon convention that took place earlier this fall. She has had event organizers come back to her to book personal events.
Talbert points out that this level of economic impact is happening without a convention hotel. Discussions are under way with a hotel company that is interested in building such a property, but no deal has been signed.
“Meanwhile, we’re selling what we have to offer, and that is beauty, function, services, and business value,” Eaton said.
“We have a ‘wow’ factor here with this beautiful building, and we have a great staff. The addition of a convention hotel would make us a one-stop shop. There are no negatives for this community from the convention center.”
Eaton said that in the convention center’s first year of operations it was host to 90 events. By June 30, 2012, the end of the current fiscal year, it will have logged 180 events, with a total of about 130,000 people through the doors.
“We achieved 68 percent of our revenue goal for the first seven months – that is, the remainder of Fiscal Year 2010-2011,” Eaton added. “This fiscal year we hope to achieve all our financial targets.”
In addition to generating revenue for local hotels, restaurants and retailers, the convention center has created employment. The permanent roster includes 16 full-time personnel; many more are brought in to work events.
Eaton said she and her staff are still learning the specific needs of their target market and testing the capabilities of the new building and its parking deck. A convention hotel will be a plus, but will add to the complexities of the operation.
“We have an advisory committee that meets to sort out issues and look at policies,” she said.
“The convention and visitors bureau has also been very helpful.”
Mayor Bill Saffo sees the convention center as a way to make Wilmington a year-round destination.
“The convention center gives us a venue to attract people here 52 weeks a year and it allows people to see other parts of the community besides the beaches: historic downtown, nearby neighborhoods, the River Walk, the battleship. These have all benefited from investments that the public and private sectors have made over the past years, and they give people something to do and see when the convention is over.
“The convention center is definitely an important component of economic development for Wilmington.”