How Cleveland’s Big Bet on a Convention Center is Playing Out

Laurel Keller, H&LA’s Director of Appraisal and Consulting Services, was quoted in the Cleveland Plain Dealer article that highlighted the slow growth in Cleveland’s convention segment. Cleveland landed a huge win for the convention business with the RNC’s decision to make Cleveland its destination. But looking beyond 2016, the city still has a ways to go to make its convention dreams a reality.

By: Susan Glasser
Published: March, 2015

CLEVELAND, Ohio – If you build it, they will come. But not without a lot of coaxing and competition first.

Shut out of the national convention business for decades, Cleveland – with its shiny, new, $465-million complex — is slowly pushing its way back into the meeting market.

But it’s been a long, slow march, marked by painstaking efforts to convince meeting planners from across the globe that their preconceived notions about Cleveland are wrong.

Landing the 2016 Republican National Convention, bringing 50,000 visitors to town next July, wouldn’t have been possible without the 230,000-square-foot building, which opened in mid-2013.

But one jam-packed week 15 months from now does not a successful convention center make.

Instead, success will be defined in the weeks and months ahead of the Republicans’ visit, and the years after.

No one is claiming victory yet.

“There is so much work still to be done,” said Mike Burns, senior vice president for convention sales and services with Destination Cleveland, the city’s tourism arm.

“We’re not even close to being in a position to say that it’s all working.”

The Cleveland Convention Center, funded by an increase in the county sales tax, recently closed the books on its first full calendar year of operation.

And while center officials say they’re pleased with the building’s early results, others say that the center is off to a slow start.

Let’s look at the numbers:

* In 2014, the convention center hosted 228 events, which far exceeded the goal of 130 events outlined in the operating contract between management company SMG and Cuyahoga County. Those 228 events attracted 177,000 people.

* But of those 228 events, only 20 were so-called “exhibit hall events” – multi-day gatherings that brought out-of-town visitors to Cleveland, visitors who stay in hotels, shop in downtown stores and eat at restaurants. The goal for 2014 for these bigger, longer events was 30.

* The convention center operated at a $4.1 million loss in 2014, not surprising because most centers don’t break even. The goal – for Cleveland’s facility and others – is to generate enough economic activity to more than make up for the deficit.

* SMG estimates the economic impact of all 228 events at about $111 million. (That compares to $330 million in economic impact promised back in 2009, when county officials were pitching the convention center-medical mart complex to the public; it’s not clear, however, when that estimate was expected to be achieved – certainly not in the first year of the center’s operation.)

Laurel Keller, director of appraisal and consulting services at Hotel and Leisure Advisors, a local hospitality consulting firm, described the convention center’s first year as sluggish – though she expects the numbers will improve once the 600-room Hilton Hotel, under construction immediately adjacent to the center, opens next year.

The convention center, she said, was not built to host daylong business meetings, corporate fund-raisers, high school proms and the like.

“It’s supposed to put heads in beds,” said Keller, citing an often-repeated economic development term that means simply: The convention center needs to draw overnight visitors to town.

So far, it hasn’t done that, at least not to the extent that it must. To read the entire article at, click here