Lessons of the Denver center

Stan Cope
Special to the Daily

December 21, 2004

Earlier this month, Denver opened its newly expanded convention center to much fanfare and anticipation. At the opening ceremony, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper told an audience of several hundred that "this is a turning point in the city's history." City officials in Denver estimate that the new convention center, which was almost doubled in size, will generate $273 million in annual business and support 8,900 jobs.

Of course, the new Colorado Convention Center has also generated its fair share of negative publicity. Two years late and almost $50 million over budget, the convention center in Denver has faced some recent criticism. And not surprisingly, questions about the center in Denver have sparked renewed uncertainty about the Vail conference center from local naysayers who have no experience in the groups-and-meetings industry.

Rather than see it as a setback, Vail should use the experience in Denver as an opportunity and take advantage of the lessons Denver city officials learned in building their center.

First of all, it is important to note that few people in Denver question the viability of the convention center. In fact, in 2005, Denver has six new conventions coming that could not have met without the expansion. For future years, there are currently 135 bookings at the Colorado Convention Center, representing $1.4 billion in additional business.

Likewise, Vail has proven the feasibility of a conference center time and time again. The most recent study, conducted by HVS Convention Sports and Entertainment Facilities Consulting in March 2004, indicated that there is an established demand for a conference center in Vail, and that it is economically feasible for Vail to build and maintain a center. According to the study, the proposed conference center in Vail, "would generate approximately $33.1 million in new direct, indirect and induced spending in the Town economy and would support 329 jobs."

Furthermore, in numerous surveys conducted by the Vail Valley Chamber & Tourism Bureau (VVCTB), the Vail business and lodging community overwhelmingly supports the construction of a conference center. In a meeting last May, two-thirds of Vail's lodging properties agreed that the construction of a conference center was a key component in "sustaining the economic viability of businesses in Vail." In a poll of 1,000 VVCTB local business members, "attracting group visitors" and "marketing the conference center" were identified as the two top priorities in 2005.

Now is not the time to question the need for a conference center in Vail. Instead, as the town's approval process for the center chugs along, we should examine the convention center construction process in Denver and learn from their mistakes.

Issue: Construction of the center in Denver was delayed for almost two years after voters approved the project in 1999. Political haggling and planning issues, mostly stemming from disagreements over an adjacent headquarters hotel, stymied the construction in Denver. Once construction did start, the center was actually finished ahead of schedule.

Lesson learned: Vail's leaders should remain confident in their resolve to build the conference center and continue to make decisions on a timely schedule. We can not afford to get bogged down in years of quib bling and second-guessing. All of Vail's successful development projects have been controversial in the planning stages, but without the courage of strong leaders, we would not have things like the Ford Amphitheater, Dobson Ice Arena or the Vail Library.

Issue: Denver used a "design-bid" process to contract the construction of the center. When Denver voters approved the $261.5 million cost of the center in 1999, city officials had only 30 percent of the project designed. Costs escalated during two years of political haggling and additional projects like the adjacent hotel and a light rail station drove the final price up.

Lesson learned: Vail's seven-member Conference Center Oversight Committee is using a "guaranteed maximum price" construction process which will help keep the project on budget. Furthermore, Vail's leaders should stay focused and avoid adding other projects to the conference center plans.

Issue: Denver does not have enough money to effectively market their convention center and now the DMCVB is proposing another tax initiative to fund marketing.

Lesson learned: Vail needs to start the marketing of the conference center now. Most of the larger groups that will book the conference center have a two or three year booking cycle. If the center is complete in 2007 or 2008, the sales push needs to begin now. The Vail Marketing Advisory Council has developed a comprehensive proposal to begin conducting sales and marketing for the center. The Town Council will be considering the marketing and governance of the center in the near future.

Groups will book the Vail Conference Center in its opening year. We just need to begin selling it. In fact, Vail has already booked one group for its center. The 1,000-member Future Business Leaders of America group, representing over 9,000 room nights, has already reserved the space for their meetings in 2007-10. This group cannot be accommodated in any of our current facilities or hotels. Many other groups have also expressed an interest in booking the conference center once construction begins.

Denver's experience in constructing their new convention center is valuable to Vail as long as it is kept in perspective. We can learn from their mistakes but we must keep in mind we're not building a 2.2 million-square-foot facility in a major metropolitan area. We are building a smaller conference center in a resort area that is designed to attract groups with 450-plus attendees that require multiple hotels to assemble a room block.

To quote the HVS study, "the question for Vail is only whether a new conference center would be attractive enough to generate enough new event activity and spending to justify the investment." The answer from the study and the local business community is an unequivocal yes. I encourage Vail to continue moving through its approval process with diligence and commitment.

Stan Cope is the president of American Hospitality Inc., a member of the Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau's board of directors, and a member of the Vail Conference Center Oversight Committee.