Convention Centers Integrate With Downtown Cores for Complete Urban Experiences

Sydney International Convention Centre
Sydney International Convention Centre

When did going to a convention become such an uplifting and enjoyable event? It happened with the return of the urban downtown core as a desirable place to live. “Reverse suburbanism,” if you will. Downtown dwelling is now high in demand for younger generations seeking new high-tech condos and post-modern lofts in repurposed commercial buildings. That major demographic shift is bringing with it all kinds of new energy, tech innovations and hip restaurants, lounges, shops and cultural attractions into city centers.

Meanwhile, convention centers are capitalizing on the trend by integrating themselves into these urban cores and acting as community accelerators—a destination hub for the entire event, including pre/post. It’s happening everywhere, and it’s adding serious value for PCOs by offering unprecedented access to creative venues and experiences.


Darling Harbour Live in Sydney, Australia is being promoted as the city’s new “innovation hub” incorporating a 50-acre international convention, exhibition and entertainment district. Scheduled for completion in 2016, the final design will include the International Convention Centre Sydney (ICC Sydney), the 440,000-sf ICC Exhibition Centre and a new 8,000-pax arena, 2,000-pax ballroom (double the current capacity), 900 hotel rooms adjacent to ICC Sydney, and an outdoor event space for 25,000 pax at Tumbalong Park. At the southern end of the project, The Haymarket neighborhood is already attracting high-tech businesses and trendy shops and restaurants.

For visitors and locals, there’s also improved pedestrian connections to Central, Chinatown and Cockle Bay Wharf.

“Sydney needs an iconic, contemporary and versatile meetings precinct befit of Australia’s global city,” says Lyn Lewis-Smith, CEO of Business Events Sydney. “This innovation hub will create opportunities to host more international events that help drive our knowledge economy…. It will connect our educational, creative and multicultural precincts. Above all, it will have the character, dynamism and energy that Sydney is renowned for.”

Belfast Waterfront Conference Centre
Belfast Waterfront Conference Centre


In terms of emerging conference cities in Europe, the city of Belfast is one to watch, located just two hours north of Dublin. We recently visited the new Titanic Museum at the exact spot where the behemoth ship was bolted together. Already it’s attracting a significant amount of new association business.

Here’s another amazing group tour in Belfast. Ex-political prisoners from the now defunct IRA lead Black Taxi Tours through both the Protestant and Catholic sides of the city, separated by the 45-foot high “Peace Wall.” The drivers explain what the city was like during the height of “The Troubles” and how the city is reintegrating. If you’re a planner overseeing any kind of corporate merger, the ROI here for any newly formed group is obvious.

We also toured the Belfast Waterfront Conference Centre, which is presently doubling in size with a slick new 23,000-sf exhibition space wrapped in clear glass overlooking the River Lagan. Opening in 2016, the $32 million project will create new banquet space for 750 attendees and five breakouts for 200 pax each. Presently, the performance hall offers 2,200 seats, with removable seats on the floor for 350-pax receptions.

“The proposed new extension will ensure that Belfast’s conference facilities are seen as a real, and competitively priced, alternative to the best of the rest in the UK and Europe,” says spokesperson Janice Crowe. Stay tuned for our upcoming Dublin/Belfast “On Location” story in March.

Anaheim Convention Center Grand Plaza
Anaheim Convention Center Grand Plaza


In Anaheim, The Grand Plaza promenade connecting the Anaheim Convention Center with adjacent hotels opens in January. The 100,000 sf of flexible gathering space features a park-like setting with water features that is ideal for outdoor receptions, events and exhibits.

“We’re the, ‘But wait, there’s more’ destination,” says Mindy Abel, CMP/CTA, senior vice president of convention sales for Anaheim/Orange County VCB. “We have groups doing a drive in-theater and outdoor stages with entertainment.”

The convention center’s campus setting and curving glass architecture take full advantage of the sunny climate. “You walk outside and see palm trees and fountains; it’s a great ambience,” notes Abel. The center has about 1.6 million sf of space, with an additional 180,000 sf in the adjacent Hilton Anaheim Hotel and Anaheim Marriott.

At the end of 2015, an upscale, 866-room dual-hotel is scheduled to open at Anaheim GardenWalk.

“We have one of the finest housing packages with 4,000 rooms right outside the convention center doors and more than 12,000 rooms in a 1-mile radius,” says Abel. “There are desirable properties in all price points so we can meet the needs of a corporate group where all associates need the same level of hotel or a group that needs to offer a choice.”

National Center Civil Human Rights
National Center Civil Human Rights


Atlanta’s downtown core is rapidly expanding over the next few years, with a new stadium, new museum and renovations to local hotels just steps away from the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC), the fourth largest in the country. The 65,000-seat stadium with a retractable roof will be the new home of the Atlanta Falcons and part of the tri-facility GWCC campus. The venue is expected to host 80-90 events annually upon opening in 2017.

In 2014, the new $250 million National Center for Civil & Human Rights opens with a thorough examination of the domestic Civil Rights Movement and present developments in international human rights. The 35,000-sf building will house flexible spaces for events and permanent exhibitions highlighted by the legacy of Martin Luther King. Architect Phil Freelon says, “The design is inspired by the linkages that empower individuals and groups of seemingly divergent interests to find common ground.”

Also scheduled for completion in 2014, The Westin Peachtree Plaza downtown is undergoing a $45 million rehab to its 1,073 guest rooms and Sun Dial Restaurant.


The 220,000-sf Branson Convention Center is connected to the 294-room Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel, across the street from the 242-room Hilton Promenade at Branson Landing. All are Hilton managed, making programs here convenient and cost effective, and the bulk of area restaurants and attractions are just minutes away.

“You walk out the front door of the Branson Convention Center and into a beautiful Ozark Mountain setting with Lake Taneycomo and the fountains, music and shops of Branson Landing at your feet,” says Lisa Jones, director of sales/marketing. “And the historic district is right there, filled with restaurants and entertainment venues that cater to groups, so you don’t need to bus people anywhere.”

Despite its peaceful atmosphere, there’s plenty to do in Branson, from private parties at theme parks to golf and zip lining. And the musical entertainment that branded Branson the “Live Entertainment Capital of the Midwest” has gone far beyond country music, stresses Jones.

“Everything is new and fresh,” she adds. A tornado spurred renovations that included new infrastructure for the convention center and a compete remodeling for the hotel, which reopened last September.


Attached to McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago, the largest convention center in the country, the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place is undergoing a $110 million expansion. Over the past year, phase one was completed with the construction of a new 460-room tower and redesign of the 4,000-sf Prairie Room meeting space. The renovation added more natural light, wood finishes and modern lighting to the space.

Phase two starts in 2013 with a renovation of the existing 800-room tower. Expect a new residential decor in the guest rooms with contemporary fixtures and amenities. The Shor restaurant and M/X Lounge will undergo a seating and buffet expansion and add private dining rooms for groups. A third phase will focus on the 25,000-sf conference center.

Front Street District, Hartford
Front Street District, Hartford


Imagine how mentally invigorated your attendees will feel after creating music with the movements of their bodies, or designing and racing planes using the power of wind and magnetism. Connecticut Science Center in Hartford, connected by bridge to the 540,000-sf Connecticut Convention Center, offers these group activities during receptions overlooking the Connecticut River.

The convention center accommodates groups up to 10,000 attendees, including inside a 110-foot glass atrium rising 10 stories above a grand plaza and tree-lined esplanade.

Across the street, the Front Street District was the final phase of the Adriaen’s Landing master development. The plan incorporates the convention center, Science Center and the 409-room Marriott Hartford Hotel, as well as new restaurants and venues. The recently expanded Bradley International Airport is just 15 miles away, and everything is connected in the city via free bio-diesel buses.

“Hartford is also a very walkable city with lots of culture and history and many features that make it a boutique city,” says Michele Hughes, director of sales/marketing for the center. “Front Street is also the future home of the Infinity Music Hall & Bistro, which is a bookable 600-seat live music and restaurant venue.”

Monument Circle, Indianapolis
Monument Circle, Indianapolis


Most people know Indianapolis as the host of the annual Indianapolis 500 and 2012 Super Bowl. But few realize that downtown Indianapolis has one of the largest convention spaces in America with nearly one million square feet, the Indianapolis Canal Walk (reminiscent of San Antonio’s RiverWalk) and gondolas imported from Venice.

“In homage to our racing history, I tell people there’s a surprise around every turn,” says Leonard Hoops, president/CEO of the Indianapolis Convention Center.

Skywalks and indoor walkways link more than 250 restaurants, shops and clubs with the convention center and Lucas Oil Stadium. There are also over 7,100 hotel rooms within a short walk of the convention center, 4,700 linked by climate controlled walkways. “A number of groups have come to us on transportation savings alone,” says Hoops.

A recent $275 million convention center expansion coincided with the opening of the 1,600-room JW Marriott Indianapolis. Additionally, The Alexander, a Dolce Hotel is a new upscale boutique property.

“There’s a good mix of price points,” Hoops notes. “We have the high end hotel brands of a first tier city but there’s no comparison in price.” He adds that the city is within a day’s drive of 50% of the U.S. population, which makes Indianapolis popular with SMERF groups. And attendees are often surprised at the range of experiences, from lapping the Indianapolis 500 track at 180 miles per hour to the new Georgia Street Pedestrian Mall. The outdoor venue is open for rental, linking the convention center with Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the Indianapolis Pacers.


Built from the ground up to meet LEED Silver certification, the 107,000-sf Wilmington Convention Center opened in 2011 with capacity for 2,000 attendees. Set on the grounds of a former industrial railroad yard, the convention center incorporates innovative green features such as an underground sand system that filters storm water runoff and a reflective white roof to reduce heat gain. Of all the venue’s spaces, the distinctive 12,000-sf waterfront event lawn on Cape Fear River is a favorite for planners.

“The lawn is perfect for year-round riverfront gatherings, thanks to our temperate coastal climate,” says GM Sue Eaton.

The angular building, suggestive of a ship, plays on Wilmington’s historic port beginnings. Inside, large expanses of glass afford glorious views of the river. Outdoors, visiting groups can charter the old-fashioned Wilmington Trolley riverboat, or a fishing yacht for F&B events.

The WCC is within walking distance of the lovely historic downtown and Riverwalk lined with moss-draped oaks. Lastly, a new $33.6 million, 186-room Embassy Suites is planned adjacent to the convention center.