Expanding Expositions

Growth of conference facilities across the region broadens the appeal to host larger meetings in the New North

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

So you’re planning a meeting for your organization. Congratulations, your job just got harder.

It also got a little easier: You have an expanding list of places in northeast Wisconsin from which to choose.

And a little harder: You have an expanding list of places in northeast Wisconsin from which to choose.

The Interstate 41 Corridor region hasn’t been gathering moss. Green Bay’s KI Convention Center doubled in size over the past year. Fond du Lac transformed a mature hotel and meeting space into a sleek, contemporary conference center. Oshkosh’s Best Western Premier Waterfront Hotel & Convention Center continues to thrive.

Next year, choosing a locale will offer even more choices once the long awaited Fox Cities Exhibition Center opens.

To make your life a little easier, B2B took a look at a few places to convene, confer and exhibit along the Interstate 41 corridor. Here’s what’s up.

Kicking It with KI

If you visited the KI Convention Center in downtown Green Bay before its $23 million expansion, you might have looked at its wide-open spaces and high ceilings and wondered how anyone could find it too small.

And now the addition has added more than 34,000 square feet, nearly doubling it to 80,000 square feet of meeting space. The facility is now attracting groups to the area that hadn’t considered it before and prompting others that had written off Green Bay to reconsider.

“It opens up a whole lot of new doors for us and the possibilities of bringing in groups we never had the opportunity to host because of the lack of meeting space or groups that had outgrown us,” said Beth Ulatowski, director of sales for the Greater Green Bay Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We’re seeing them come back.”

But why on earth was it considered too small in the first place?

Ulatowski said she’d heard from group after group that they either needed a bigger ballroom space or more breakout rooms or both. “We weren’t able to accommodate a lot of those things with the space that we had,” she said. “The ballrooms are used for meetings, lunches, banquets, dinners, and that type of thing. The expansion focused on groups that needed larger banquet space for their banquets, breakout rooms for their smaller meetings or a larger general-session room – meaning one space that can accommodate all of their members at one time for a speaker or a workshop.”

One group that left and has now come back to Green Bay is Wisconsin Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association.

“It’s been years and years since we were able to accommodate them, simply because their group required so much space, and now we have them coming to Green Bay in April,” Ulatowski said.

While the 3,500-person Forest Lakes Evangelical Free Church of America has descended upon Green Bay for years, the group of mostly young people has more space to do so now. “They were able to use every room in the convention center including the expansion, and they loved it, having more elbow room to spread out,” Ulatowski said.

The City of Green Bay owns KI Convention Center, and the adjacent Hyatt Regency manages it. Hampton Inn is there, too, offering more beds for conference-goers. A skywalk connects the center to a 600-stall covered parking ramp.

KI’s largest meeting room can accommodate 3,640 people. For exhibitors, the KI has more than 35,000 square feet, which can be adapted to 219 8-ft. by 10-ft. trade show booths. Groups can use KI’s portable staging, video and cable TV access, numerous outlets, audio/video system and lighting. Its loading bays have access to the street and can enable a semi-truck to drive inside the facility.

Later this year, the opening of the historic Hotel Northland downtown will add 150 rooms for spillover guests and business travelers, Ulatowski said.

Fox Cities Expo Center on its way

Exhibition center, expo center … potato, potado. It doesn’t matter what you call it, said Pam Seidl, executive director of the Fox Cities Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Just get it done.

However people refer to it, it’s been a long, arduous slog for those behind the efforts to manifest a more contemporary exhibition center in downtown Appleton, and it’s finally paying off.

“This has been a conversation that has been taking place in our community for 30 years,” said Karen Harkness, community development director for the City of Appleton.

It’s looking like everything that’s needed to be OK’d, green lighted, voted on, approved and otherwise deemed acceptable has received the appropriate affirmation. It’s now full speed ahead, for the most part.

“The City is really driving the project now from the construction standpoint,” Seidl said. “Now they’re just in the phase of background construction work, like soil borings and land planning. They’re doing all the behind-the-scenes things to begin the process.”

Construction could begin late this spring or in summer. Officials estimate cost between $24 million and $28 million to add 65,000 square feet on the opposite side of Lawrence Street from Radisson Paper Valley Hotel. A skywalk will connect the exhibition center with the hotel.

An increased room tax of 10 percent went into effect Jan. 1 in 10 communities across the Fox Cities. Three percent of any hotel room booked – or roughly a third of the overall room tax proceeds – goes to pay for the exhibition center.

Feasibility studies conducted during the past decade estimated an expanded exhibition center would bring in an additional $6.5 million in annual visitor spending to the area’s hotels, restaurants, shops, gas stations and ancillary transportation-related businesses.

“Obviously the hope is that we’re going to be able to attract larger groups and conventions, especially those that need tradeshow space,” Seidl said.

She said it will make organizations outside of Wisconsin take another look at the greater Fox Cities area. “It will certainly keep us competitive in the state and the Midwest as far as what we call a third-tier destination city,” she said.

The convention industry categorizes markets in terms of tiers. First-tier markets include Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla. Second-tier communities include places such as Memphis, Tenn. and St. Louis, Mo. Third-tier convention communities serve more of a regional audience, with most groups traveling mainly within state lines, Seidl said.

“We’ve always focused on those associations and small regional groups. That’s the market we want to continue serving, so (the expanded facility) keeps us in that market,” Seidl said. “Now we’ll have this space to offer groups that want trade shows or have larger equipment that goes along with their meeting or convention.”

Most importantly, the expanded facility will allow a group to display its wares, hold meetings and have a banquet without rearranging walls and furniture. And there will be rooms left over for other groups to meet at the same time.

“The expo center isn’t about the hotel rooms, it’s about that bigger tradeshow space for the meetings and conventions, and we were certainly lacking that,” Seidl said.

The biggest space currently around is the downtown Radisson Paper Valley Hotel. Its existing Grand Ballroom is listed at 13,370 square feet.

“For a group that wants to do a trade show, the Radisson only has the one ballroom, and if they want to do meals in the ballroom, they don’t have a place to do a trade show,” Seidl said. “This gives us some extra space, and there will be some local businesses that can leverage the space.”

Fond du Lac: Total Transformation

Whatever you call Fond du Lac’s newest gathering space, don’t call it a convention center.

“It might just be a question of semantics,” said Craig Molitor, president of the Fond du Lac CVB. He used to work in the consulting industry, and one of his niches was recruiting management for convention centers.

“I’d like to make it really clear, we call it a conference center,” he said. He feels ‘convention center’ conveys a humongous space, while ‘conference center’ does not. “A conference center is a sizable meeting space but not 100,000 feet of space.”

“Brand-new and gorgeous” is how Molitor describes the addition to and renovation of the old Holiday Inn to create the Lake Winnebago Conference Center at the Holiday Inn.

“It’s modern with stylish soft furniture, hip and cool lighting, and with a contemporary feel to the meeting space,” Molitor said. “Additionally, there are seven concurrent breakout rooms, so people can meet in the general space and go into several smaller rooms in concurrent meetings.”

The renovation completed in 2015 added more than 7,500 square feet on to the Holiday Inn, bringing the total space to 14,000 square feet. The new conference center area is a big, open, state-of-the-art space with no barriers or pillars and easily divisible into smaller meeting spaces, Molitor said. The hotel’s makeover blends with the new conference center addition.

But Holiday Inn isn’t the only hotel there. Lake Winnebago Conference Center and adjacent properties also owned by Wisco Hotel Group include two others: Holiday Inn Express & Suites – also constructed in 2015 – and Comfort Inn. They’re clustered together with mutual parking lots, but not attached. Molitor said they’re marketing the area as Fond du Lac’s Conference District.

As a result, Fond du Lac is now a much bigger player in the conference game, said Joan Pinch, regional sales manager for Wisco’s Fond du Lac properties.

“We can go after association business that we weren’t able to (previously) with our space,” Pinch said. “I reach out into the Madison and Milwaukee markets, plus our own local (groups) that are part of state associations. The local nonprofits can have their fundraisers here, and have a live auction and bar.”

The new space is able to host two wedding receptions at once. Pinch said seated theater-style, the conference center’s main room could accommodate up to 1,000 people. She recently secured a conference group for 2019.

“It’s very conducive to large groups and how large groups like to meet,” Molitor said. “It’s large but not mega-large. Groups of up to 500 would be comfortable there.”

Oshkosh strong and happy

With the renovation of the Best Western Premier Waterfront Hotel & Convention Center a few years ago and the return of the Oshkosh CVB itself downtown, meetings in Oshkosh have had a bit of a rebirth, and the state of convening in Oshkosh is rosy.

Between the still-relatively new renovations to the convention center and newer University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Alumni Welcome & Conference Center, the Experimental Aircraft Association facility and grounds, and Sunnyview Exposition Center, the business of meeting is flourishing in Wisconsin’s Event City.

“Our conventions are very strong,” said Oshkosh CVB Executive Director Wendy Hielsberg. “We’re not just dependent on one center, which make us unique.”

The horizon looks sunny, too, according to Hielsberg.

“We’ve had a great convention business this year, with future bookings, so we’re very excited about our business,” she said.

At EAA, groups rent out its hangars, chapel, Founders Wing, nature center pavilion, museum, lobby and other spaces.

Sunnyview Expo Center’s barns, green space, grandstand, food court, expo buildings and outdoor arena make it fit for very large configurations of people or certain types of groups.

UW Oshkosh Alumni Center’s 16,000 square feet welcomes groups of up to 500. It has state-of-the-art meeting space amenities, and its boardroom and four breakout rooms can each hold around 40 people.

The upscale and modern downtown convention center is the biggest game in town, with its 24,000 square feet of meeting space and 18 total breakout rooms. Most of Oshkosh’s conference and convention business comes from associations based in the Madison and Milwaukee areas.

“We go after the midsize (conference) market,” Hielsberg said. “We fill in our (calendar of bookings) with the events market, the sports market and so on. But overall, it’s a great balance.” n

Lee Reinsch of Green Bay worked 18 years at daily newspapers before launching her freelance business, edgewise, in 2007.