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Attracting bigger meetings drives convention site expansion boom

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

TRIGGER WARNING: If you’re of a certain vintage and you dislike business conferences, conventions or multi-day meetings, the following paragraph might evoke unpleasant flashbacks. We apologize for any suffering it may cause.

But remember the days of bad hotels, cigarette smoke-infused banquet rooms and tepid coffee in Styrofoam cups? What about broken A/V equipment, dusty fake plants and Bridezilla shooing your group out of the ballroom you rented, too?

These days, city leaders realize that business meetings, conventions and conferences bring money into their communities, and they’re investing in that niche market, instead of stuffing it into a dank back room.

Last year, the state drew $17.5 billion in total tourism dollars, and up to 30 percent of that came from people traveling here on business or attending a multi-day gathering, according to Lisa Marshall, director of communication for the state Department of Tourism.

“Meeting and conference tourism is an economic generator, and is very important to our tourism industry,” Marshall said.

Individuals traveling on business – and not for a particular conference or convention – make up about 12 percent of the $17.5 billion, according to Marshall.

Conference and convention tourism drives development and can help a community beef up revenue during those times when it’s not sunny-and-balmy tourist season.

“What the convention business brings us is midweek business and off-season business,” said Wendy Hielsberg, executive director of the Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It’s important to us because it fills a void. It keeps business flowing all year.”

It also draws a different kind of traveler than the one traveling for fun, leisure or youth sporting events. “The conventioneer spends significantly more on a daily basis than any other people who may be visiting our community,” said Jim Schmitt, mayor of Green Bay. “God love them, the youth soccer tournaments, but you get four kids sharing a room and eating out of a trunk – it just doesn’t bring as much economic impact as the business traveler.”

Northeast Wisconsin’s conference and convention scene has seen a bit of a building boom in the last five years, with major projects in at least three New North cities now in various stages of planning, construction or use.

KI Center: Attracting gold to Green Bay

The $25 million expansion of the KI Center in downtown Green Bay is still a year away from being finished, but it’s close enough that the space is already booking for next year, according to Beth Ropson, director of sales for the Green Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The expansion morphs the facility from 45,000 square feet to 80,000. Between the two hotels flanking it – the upmarket Hyatt Regency on the east side and the more moderately priced Hampton Inn & Suites to the west – the convention center district will offer 400 rooms. Its ballroom can accommodate groups of 2,000, according to Schmitt.

Ropson said it’s making some groups take another look at Titletown.

“We have been hearing from convention groups that have outgrown us, or (whose) attendance or exhibitors have outgrown us, as well as some groups we never even pursued before because we didn’t have space for them,” Ropson said.

Groups like the National Ground Water Protection Council and the International Roundabout Conference and the Midwest Food Processors Association.

A “very happy” group of 3,000 students comes every January for the Forest Lakes District Youth Conference of the Evangelical Free Church of America.

“With this expansion, their group can bring more students,” Ropson said. “They’ve been sort of shoehorned and have had to limit attendance.”

The KI Center expansion hasn’t come about without a lot of forethought, though.

“We spent a lot of time studying this, going to places like Milwaukee and Madison and visiting with people who held their conventions here in Green Bay in the past,” said Schmitt. “We got some letters of commitment that if we do X, they would support us.”

Even seemingly small details, like the areas between exhibition space and meeting-room spaces, have been taken into consideration, Schmitt said. Convention goers often stay in touch with headquarters or clients, and they need somewhere to make phone calls.

“The space can be a distance, but they want to do business between those walks,” said Schmitt. “Is it wide enough, is there enough pre-function space where you can do a little business before you go into the next event? How is it in terms of lighting and views of the river for some of the breakout sections and the reception area?”

“A lot of thought has gone into this, and we’re confident that we’re going to be on people’s shortlists for holding a midsize convention in the state of Wisconsin,” Schmitt said.

Oshkosh: Batting 2 for 2 but still down

Two projects on Oshkosh’s riverfront preoccupied the city for more than two years, and both projects are finished and in use now. But there’s still a wee problem. The city still needs several hundred hotel rooms, some say.

The Best Western Premier Waterfront Hotel opened in spring 2013, and downriver the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Alumni Welcome & Conference Center opened this past spring.

The newbie, 7-month-old UW-Oshkosh Alumni Welcome and Conference Center, is still in its infancy. The 16,000-sq. ft. brick and Lannon stone building on the banks of the Fox River can host groups of up to 500 people and offers several breakout and meeting room options.

It’s by no means a mega amphitheater and probably won’t be the site of the National Association of Truck Stop Owners anytime soon. Its users have mostly been local groups, alumni weddings and reunions, and meetings for Oshkosh-based corporations.

Facility director Laura Rommelfanger said it’s open to more uses by other groups.

“The vision for this center was a place for campus and community to come together and connect, and for our alums to come back to (and) a forum for public debate and discussion,” she said.

Its state-of-the-art technology includes WiFi; screens and projectors that come down from the ceiling with the touch of a button; touch-panel controlled lights, blinds and mikes; and hearing loop technology which broadcasts directly to a person’s hearing aid.

Its executive boardroom can accommodate 44, its four breakout rooms each can hold 40, and weather allowing, there’s the patio and fire pit outdoors for more al fresco gatherings.

But, it doesn’t have on-site lodging. Just five minutes down the river is the new 176-room Best Western Premier Waterfront Hotel & Conference Center.

No room at the inn?

One of the benefits of a convention center is having an anchor hotel connected with it, said Dan Schetter, general manager of the Best Western Premier Waterfront Hotel & Conference Center in Oshkosh.

The property at 1 N. Main St. has had several incarnations under other names, including Hilton, Radisson, Park Plaza and City Center. Previous management turned many visitors off, to the point that the Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau stopped recommending it, even though it’s connected to the renovated 18,500-sq. ft. Oshkosh Convention Center via skywalk.

But last year, after a $13 million overhaul, it officially became the Best Western Premier Waterfront Hotel & Convention Center. Its 176 rooms include five whirlpool/fireplace suites and a handful of “corner king” rooms with expansive windows and views down the Fox River.

Sales director Dave Helgeson climbed aboard in 2012 in the midst of the upgrade so he could start pre-selling.

“At first it was hard for some conferences to see the big picture because the hotel wasn’t open, and we had a number of conferences who stayed here in past and who’d had bad experiences with this particular property,” Helgeson said, referring to the previous ownership. “Once we opened the doors, we started getting conferences in here. People are enjoying being on the property, on the water and the overall renovated facilities.”

In September it hosted a group of 100 professional meeting planners and ended up with four new client leads, he said.

Its total 25,000 square feet of meeting space can accommodate groups of up to 900 people, like one gathering that’s on the books for this winter. Luckily, that group requires just 140 rooms. But the hotel doesn’t have enough sleeping rooms for other large groups, Schetter said.

“We’ve found that we’ve got a little bit of an imbalance where we can service large quantities of people in the convention center, but we don’t have enough to host a multiday conference for a group of that size or even of 500 people,” Schetter said. “Not having a nearby hotel for overflow purposes creates a little bit of a challenge for us.”

As it stands now, convention groups have to disperse their members into overflow hotels, which can mean driving up to five miles, according to Hielsberg with the Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“Now that we have this beautiful conference center and this hotel, now that we are attracting that type of business, we see the void,” Hielsberg said. “We need another hotel, one that’s either adjacent to that property or closer than 5 miles.”

For one group, the hotel worked out a transportation plan, whereby it would pay for shuttle service to other hotels. But many groups don’t want to be split up.

“It’s a problem for some groups (unless they) are willing to be flexible,” Helgeson said. “We’re finding out that more and more hotels around Wisconsin don’t necessarily want to give up all of their rooms for a particular group, because they have such a loyal transient base that they want to hold rooms for.”

Appleton expo center

For the last five years, adding exhibition space to Appleton’s Radisson Paper Valley Hotel has been the topic of conversation.

The not-for-profit corporation, Fox Cities Exhibition Center Inc., came up with a plan in 2010: Build a 62,000-sq. ft. expo center south of the Radisson on a county-owned parking lot, and increase room tax to help pay for it. The project would add 100-plus jobs, generate revenue, and add to the city’s property-tax base.

After years of remaining in the talking and planning stages, the project may move ahead an inch or so: In late September, upon the advice of consultants, Appleton’s Community and Economic Development Department proposed the city’s redevelopment authority step in to lead the project instead of it being managed by a private entity.

“We’re not interested in control of the project, we’re just interested in getting it built,” said Walt Rugland of Fox Cities Exhibition Center Inc. “The municipalities that have to enact the room tax are much more comfortable with the city being the lead player versus a separate not-for-profit.”

So, in “weeks rather than months,” the matter will be placed in the hands of the city common council, Rugland said. They’ll be asked to buy the land from the county, enact a room tax and do whatever’s necessary to allow the city redevelopment authority to proceed with the project. That includes working with other municipalities in the district to increase the hotel room tax throughout the area, according to Rugland.

Management and lease contracts hadn’t been firmed up as of New North B2B press time for this issue.

‘Making do’

Business and conference spending in the Fox Cities makes up as much as 40 percent of its annual tourism revenue, according to Pam Seidl, executive director of the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau. Leisure travelers comprise the smallest of its niches, with youth sports tournaments and meetings/conventions as its largest.

“What’s lacking in Appleton is exhibition space, not hotel rooms,” Seidl said.

A healthy meeting-and-conventions revenue stream requires both, she says, because it’s convenient for conference-goers to have both in one spot, and selling booth-space is a money maker.

She said groups are making do with the Radisson Paper Valley for their conferences as best they can. “But frankly we’re not getting that business because we don’t have the expo space,” she said. “That was the whole impetus behind the expo center. There’s business we’re missing out on and (groups) that are outgrowing us and moving to other facilities where they do have the expo space because we don’t.”

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