In late November, King's Hall Exhibition and Conference Centre commercial director Philip Rees and Telford International Centre (TIC) managing director Shaun Ormrod led a fact-finding trip to the US. Their mission? To discover the secrets of four venues - McCormick Place Convention Centre in Chicago, Morial Convention Centre in New Orleans, Orange County Convention Centre in Orlando and Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Both British venues are preparing to spend vast sums of money on redevelopment and the ten-day tour aimed to seek out examples of best practice in the US that could be incorporated into schemes over here.
At Telford, the bulldozers have already moved in to start work on the first phase of a long-term development plan. The initial pounds 7m facelift will create a conference suite holding 650. Phases two and three, planned over the next few years, will include new building exteriors and improvements to public circulation areas. The final stage will be a fourth exhibition hall boosting space at the centre to 15,000sqm.
'I'm not proud,' says Kings Hall commercial director Philip Rees. 'If other venues are doing it better, which they are in the US, then we want to know about it before we start to spend vast sums of money on improvements.'
All US venues are owned and funded by the state. Each state has its own tax-raising powers and each venue accommodates conferences and exhibitions, treating them as one and the same.
'They don't understand the concept of the Birmingham model where a major exhibition facility is eight miles away from the major conference facility,' says Ormrod. 'They believe in a holistic approach that taxes the visitor and supports the venue and the local economy.'
The bed tax, as it is commonly known, is about 14% and applies only to visitors, as opposed to state residents. The venue gets 2% with the rest going towards road and rail infrastructure and other components needed to promote each state as a destination, rather than just a venue.
'A good example is the Orange County mission statement,' says Rees. 'Its vision is to infuse the local economy with wealth from other American states and international markets. The first priority is the local economy as opposed to the financial success of the venue.'
Ormrod sums up the way in which each venue operates by quoting his host in Chicago. 'He told us his job was to bring in 60,000 high rollers for five days in the depths of December. He was talking about an international cardiology convention. These cardiologists earn a lot of money and would have done more of their Christmas shopping in Chicago than in their home towns. It didn't matter if the venue lost money on the convention it would make it up in bed tax. What mattered is the local economy benefited.'
Rees notes that it was almost impossible to secure a hotel room while the International Cardiology Convention was running. 'The Americans do everything large and it includes their conventions.
They say it is international, but all the flights are internal. International means North America and South America,' says Rees.
The nearest model in the UK to the way US venues are run is Harrogate, where there is a strong link between the exhibition centre and surrounding hotels. 'Decisions are made by central government in the UK, which means we will never be able to introduce a working model along the lines of the US. But in Telford, I would like to keep talking to our surrounding infrastructure so we can work towards a common goal that will benefit the whole area,' says Ormrod
The big difference both Rees and Ormrod noted between the way the UK and the US run their venues is the pricing structure. Atlanta has a main auditorium that seats 4,200 and it charges dollars 4,200 (pounds 2,800) in total. In contrast, Birmingham's International Convention Centre has a 14,000-seat auditorium that charges about pounds 23,000 (dollars 35,000) per day. 'When the Americans come over here their jaws drop to the floor at the prices we charge,' says Ormrod.
Facilities at the US venues are predictably grand. The Orange County Convention Centre has a 6,038sqm ball room as its centrepiece and McCormick Place in Chicago claims 204,380sqm of exhibition halls ranging in size from 7,000sqm to 120,770sqm. 'Orlando's venue was out of this world and had so much money behind it. All the venues had high ceilings and over-the-top furnishings,' says Ormrod.
'The furnishing that stood out for me was the carpets,' says Rees. 'They carpet everywhere as it is more cost-effective than having marble concourses.
The maintenance cost of marble is huge.'
Creating an impression
The ease with which the US venues function is partially because of the way they are constructed. Build-up and breakdown at exhibitions in Atlanta are aided by a network of underground tunnels that link the entire venue.
'In New Orleans, the kitchens are in the central part of the venue which would normally result in the occupation of sellable space. But they have built these huge service tunnels in the exhibition hall ceilings so they can load goods in and out of service lifts, transport goods along the length of the hall and down into the kitchens. They couldn't understand why we were so impressed,' says Ormrod.
Transportation links to the venues were also of major importance to the overall infrastructure. Rees was impressed that the Metro Rail runs under the venues of Chicago and Atlanta whereas the Morial Convention Centre in New Orleans is situated on the banks of the Mississippi, which has its own transport advantages.
'Before I went I could have been accused of only having a five-year plan for TIC,' says Ormrod. 'On my return I told my boss that the good news is I now have a 20-year plan, the bad news is it will cost him more money to implement.'