Cleveland Convention Center, in third year, hits jackpot with RNC

Laurel Keller weighed with the Cleveland Plain Dealer regarding the Cleveland Convention Center. Since the RNC’s announcement that the 2016 Convention would take place in Cleveland, the convention center has landed hundreds of events. 

By: Susan Glasser
Published: September, 2016

In early 2014, about six months after the new Cleveland Convention Center opened its doors, a group from the Republican National Committee came to town to check it out.

We all know what happened next.

In the convention business, as in most any business, timing is everything.

When the Republicans announced two years ago that they had chosen Cleveland for their 2016 presidential convention, the timing was perfect – perfect for Cleveland, which wanted a high-profile event to showcase its turnaround, and perfect for the new convention center, which was trying to fill vacancies in its wide-open calendar.

Since that announcement, the convention center (officially, the Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland) has landed hundreds of events, large and small. Mark Leahy, the convention center’s general manager, attributes many of them to the city’s success in pitching itself to the Republican Party.

“That could not have happened at a better time in the life cycle of this building,” said Leahy. “We got a bump right off the bat.”

Leahy recently sat down with The Plain Dealer to talk about the center’s recent successes, challenges and what the city needs to do to maintain the momentum.

A Boston native, Leahy came to Cleveland after opening and running Pittsburgh’s convention center for 10 years. He arrived in Northeast Ohio about four months after the publicly-financed, $465-million convention center opened.

“I’ve been doing this for 30-something years. This is my fourth building — I’ve opened three,” he said. “I’m very, very pleased with the numbers, very optimistic about the future.”

The center is exceeding several of the numeric goals set by the Cuyahoga County Convention Facilities Development Corporation, the organization formed by the county to monitor the building’s operation. The total number of center events in 2015 (196) was higher than targeted, as was the number of major exhibit hall events (although square-footage occupancy of those exhibition hall events fell slightly under goal).

The center calculates the economic benefits of those 196 events at $90 million, generated via hotel room nights, restaurant meals purchased and the like.

This year, thanks to the RNC and other high-profile events, should produce results that are even better, in terms of attendance and overnight bookings.

“This is now a convention city,” said Leahy. And for that, he largely credits the Grand Old Party. “One of our toughest sells has always been getting people to come here and see what we’re offering. The RNC has blown that door open.”

Mark Leahy, general manager of the Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland; he works for property management firm SMG, hired by Cuyahoga County in 2013 to run the center.

* The convention center itself, which is getting high marks from users for its clean, functional space and views of Lake Erie. Members of the media, who were camped out here during the RNC, were charmed with the center’s small farm, located at the center’s northern end. Designed to showcase the building’s sustainability efforts, the farm got attention from the Wall Street Journal,ABC News and others.

* The new Hilton Cleveland Downtown, the taxpayer-financed hotel that opened in June, has helped, as well. The 600-room hotel, a block west of the convention center, is attached to the center via a basement-level hallway. “The Hilton has been a game changer,” said Leahy. “It makes us competitive in the winter months, which has been an issue.”

* Cleveland’s reputation in the health-care field, which is helping the city land medical and health-related conferences. Last year, nearly a third of the meetings at the convention center were health related. This year, that percentage will likely be closer to 40 percent, said Dave Johnson, director of public relations and communication for the convention center.

Medical conventions are highly coveted for a couple of reasons, according to Leahy: Typically, attendance is high, because doctors and others in the field need continuing education credits to stay licensed; attendees have higher discretionary income for shopping and dining out; and these meetings tend to last a day or two longer than average.

“That seems like a great niche for Cleveland,” said Eric Belfrage, senior vice president at CBRE Hotels in Columbus, who recently toured the Cleveland complex. The adjacent Global Center for Health Innovation, a showcase for medical technology and ideas, offers a unique selling point for the city, he said.

“It’s a very competitive market,” Belfrage added. “That’s why Destination Cleveland and Experience Columbus and all the other convention and visitors bureaus are vying for these groups.”

Laurel Keller, a Cleveland hospitality consultant, said filling a new convention center takes time – especially in a place like Cleveland, which hadn’t been competitive in the convention market for years.

“I think the ramp up has taken a little longer than anyone had hoped it would,” said Keller, vice president at Hotel & Leisure Advisors. She attributes the slow growth, in part, to the delayed opening of the Hilton, three years after the convention center debuted.

“It’s a bit like a two- or three-legged dog hobbling along,” she said. Since then, though, convention center numbers have picked up.

“From what I have been able to glean, it’s competing well,” she said. “There is reason for optimism.”

To read the entire article on, click here