Convention centers boom despite shows going virtual

Cities race to build venues as they look beyond pandemic

Convention centers lose money, but cities build them to draw business visitors. (iStock)
Convention centers lose money, but cities build them to draw business visitors. (iStock)

Why, in the midst of a pandemic, would a 25-member board in Indianapolis vote unanimously to expand a convention center, adding up to $155 million to the public debt?

“We see convention tourism racing back in 2023,” Chris Gahl, senior vice president of Visit Indy, the nonprofit that markets the Indiana Convention Center and attractions such as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, told the New York Times. “When the green flag drops, we’re going to be on the competitive edge.”

On their own, convention centers are not worthwhile to private developers — in fact, they are almost always money-losers — but local governments see them as a way to attract business tourism.

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In 2016, the more than a quarter-million conventions and trade shows across the United States drew 84.7 million people, who spent a total of $110.4 billion, according to the latest survey by the Events Industry Council.

While a few convention centers have defaulted, many others are expanding. Georgia budgeted $70 million to double the Savannah convention center’s exhibition hall. In Cleveland, officials are looking for $30 million to upgrade an underused health technology center and add it to the Huntington Convention Center. Nearby an unbuilt $32 million convention center in Indiana, the county Capital Improvement Board just began working on a plan for a $20 million hotel.

[NYT] — Sasha Jones