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Coast Convention Center ready to expand, host bigger meetings

In convention center parlance, size matters. The amount of space determines how many people can attend meetings and conventions and the type of activities that can take place. With a recently passed bond issue in Harrison County, the Mississippi Coast Coliseum & Convention Center is about to have a facelift and enlargement.

Already the South’s largest beachfront meeting facility, the center will add 200,000 square feet to its existing 180,000 and renovate older parts of the complex. A feasibility study by Conventions, Sports & Leisure of Minneapolis made this recommendation based on surveying 200 meeting planners nationwide, the growth of the community and what state and Coast industries are looking for in comparison to similar markets.

Executive director Bill Holmes anticipates that construction should be complete in late 2007. The process must begin with advertising for architects to design the $72-million project. He expects that to begin this month.

“I’m so thankful to the voters of Harrison County who want to move forward,” he said. “Now it’s time to do the job and do it with passion. This will make us an exciting spot and will greatly enhance the attractiveness of what we can offer.”

Holmes says the Coast can now go after conventions it’s missed, such as the National Farm Bureau, and can better accommodate other groups such as the U.S. National Guard. The Guard met here but had to put 40,000 square feet of exhibits in the parking lot and hold breakout sessions in hotels scattered around Biloxi.

“They had a great time here and want to come back,” he said. “They worked with us in every way.”

Getting the word out

Because large meetings are booked several years in advance, Convention Center marketing director Paula April says she’s ready to put out the word that the facility is bigger and better.

“We’re thrilled and the minute that architect is done and we accept a contractor’s bid, we will start booking conventions,” she said. “We will sell it from architect’s drawings and this will allow us to book broad, all-around conventions.”

Presently, the facility hosts groups of 1,000 to 1,200 with limited exhibit space and breakout rooms. After the expansion, groups of 2,500 to 3,500 will be targeted with a full range of programs. Groups up to 5,000 can also be accommodated. The space will include a general session meeting hall, breakout rooms, exhibit hall with 30-foot ceilings and a banquet hall.

“The word is already out there and we’re getting calls from groups who’ve heard we’re growing,” April said. “We know the business is out there.”

Additionally, she said groups already meeting here could grow. For instance, the Southern Gaming Summit and the Mississippi Municipal League use every inch of space the present facility has and would like to increase their number of exhibitors and possibly other activities.

The Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) books meetings, conventions and trade shows for the facility. CVB executive director Steve Richer said, “We are thrilled about the convention center expansion. That will add to an impressive list of new attractions totaling over $650 million, including museums, resort hotels and casinos and an airport expansion, that creates an extraordinary, multi-faceted meeting location.”

Employees of the CVB attend national trade shows to solicit convention leads and now Richer says they are looking at ways to expand the marketing efforts.

“We’re considering having a full-time marketing presence in Washington, D.C., where all the associations are headquartered. We’ve thought of that for several years but now we have more of a reason to be there,” he said.

Expanding the market’s possibilities

Donna Tarasavage, the CVB’s director of sales, noted that the needs of meetings have shifted and it isn’t always the number of people attending who cause the Coast to lose convention business. A group of 1,500 may need 100,000 square feet of exhibit space, breakout rooms and a ballroom.

“This expansion expands our possibilities,” she said. “We predominately go after associations and have pursued every market segment in limited ways but this gives us more possibilities.”

She feels it’s critical to have a presence in Washington, something more than 40 cities’ CVBs already have. Another marketing tool she’s exploring is a convention incentive program such as state tourism’s reward of funds for lodging rooms booked.

“We want to expand on that,” she said. “It can be many different things and we’re setting up our guidelines now.”
The Imperial Palace Casino’s director of hotel sales, Leslie Dubuisson, was appointed to an advisory committee for the convention center project. She thinks the expansion will definitely increase convention business on the Coast.
“It will also bring us bigger trade shows and entertainment events,” she said. “The Coast is on the beginning of a big boom and whatever we can do to help tourism, we’ll do it.”

The Imperial Palace has one of the largest meeting spaces of all the casinos — 54,000 square feet and can handle groups of 1,200 to 1,500 people. Sometimes it competes with the convention center for business. Still, the casino supported the expansion.

“We’re friendly competition,” Dubuisson said. “The expansion will help everyone. It will be good for the whole Coast and bring more people in. That’s why we supported it.”

Holmes said meeting planners from around the U.S. will come to the Coast for a familiarization tour to see what the facility and area have to offer.

“There’s a lot happening all around the convention center,” he said. “The Coast will have close to 20,000 hotel rooms in the near future and there’s a proposal to build 500 rooms on property adjacent to the convention center grounds.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.


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