Coast now waiting for the masses to gather
The multi-million-dollar expansion at the Mississippi Coast Convention Center is complete and ready to welcome large gatherings. The state-of-the-art facility expresses the flavor of the Coast in its design with shades of blue and a swooping roofline that resembles a wave. Space for meetings, conventions and trade shows has increased to 413,000 square feet from the previous 176,000 square feet.
“Having been in the convention business for 35 years, I honestly have to say that we have one of the most beautiful and totally versatile convention centers in the U.S.,” said Paula K. April, director of marketing and sales. “It’s a dream to sell.
We have state-of-the-art everything.”
The facility includes a full range of the latest telecommunications and audio/visual amenities, security, zoned lighting, freight access, 4,000 parking spaces and RV hookups. The additional space allows the center to easily handle conventions of 6,000 people for a full program with exhibit hall, banquets, meetings and general session.
“It also means we can continue to handle all of the local business such as graduations, Mardi gras balls, banquets, etc.,” April said. “In other words, we can still take large conventions and have enough space to handle a Mardi gras ball. Additionally, the expansion allowed our current groups to grow their trade show floor. Many of our groups were bursting out at the seams, and now they can increase the revenue for their associations by expanding their show floor; more exhibitors mean more revenue.”
April says the strategy for marketing the convention center does not rally change with the expansion, other than identifying larger groups to target and solicit.
“We still do familiarization tours and sales blitzes, make calls and continue to attend major meetings and trade shows,” she added. “We just have more we can call on now.”
Without the expansion, the center could not have accommodated the following large groups that booked the facility: National Governors Association; PBS Antique Roadshow; Oceans 2009; and, growth for the Mississippi Municipal, Mississippi Supervisors and the Mississippi Nurses and Student Nurses associations.
April’s marketing staff is working closely with the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau to book groups for the center. The CVB’s staff is now housed in the new convention center space.
CVB executive director Richard Forester feels his staff is fortunate to have offices located there where they can show the center to clients. “It’s a really great facility,” he said. “It’s certainly expanded our horizons, and we can offer it to larger, more variety of groups now.”
He points out that the challenge for the Coast Convention Center is having no adjacent hotel. “That’s the major issue. Even though we have this wonderful space, there are other wonderful spaces with hotels attached,” he said. “We’ve been offering a $25,000 incentive to offset transportation costs, but have had no takers.”
According to Forester, there’s a big push by Convention Center director Bill Holmes and the Gulf Coast Business Council to get someone to build an adjacent hotel. A consultant has been hired to work on this issue.
April agrees that an attached or walking distance headquarters hotel is needed. “While it is true we can continue to seek and book business that is willing to transport, there are literally hundreds of groups that require one-roof accommodations,” she said. “As more and more convention centers in the United States build hotels right next door, it has become obvious that our next step to full success will be to likewise be able to offer the same services as our competitors.”
Unfortunately, national and regional conventions book three to five years out, a great deal of convention business was lost following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. April estimates that about three years of ground work was lost. It was difficult to get planners to think about the Gulf Coast or do site tours with so much attention on the storm’s devastation.
“We were shut down and had to move all of our business to other locations, or in some instances we were able to place business in our arena since we opened that facility within two years of the storm,” April said. “Once the facility was opened back up in late 2007, we of course started putting our regular business back in place.”
She adds that the Coast was just about getting free of Katrina and back on a reasonable track when the economic slump hit the nation. “That did not affect us as greatly as the rest of the country, and we did not experience cancellations, but we did experience drops in attendance and exhibitors for trade shows,” she said. “We were just starting to recover from that when the BP oil spill crisis hit and national media attention made it difficult to lure conventions here.”
However, April says the Coast Convention Center did not suffer any cancellations from the oil spill crisis. “But again, we lost ground in the marketing push,” she said. “By the end of the year, we hope to be well on our way again to where we were prior to Katrina. Prior to that, our area was booming in all aspects — development, business, conventions, leisure sports and more.”
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