In recent years, even destination cities have had to offer significant incentives, discounts and free rents in order to attract conventions and trade shows.
In 1996, the country’s four largest convention centers – McCormick Place in Chicago, Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Las Vegas Convention Center, and Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta – combined to welcome 3.83 million attendees to the convention, according to data from Heywood Sanders, who studies convention centers.
This annual figure peaked at 4.74 million in 2006 before the Great Recession. In 2019, the last pre-pandemic year, only 3.84 million people attended conventions at the country’s four main sites.
Wichita doesn’t compete with Atlanta and Las Vegas for conventions and trade shows, but the same story of expanding showrooms and declining footfall has also played out closer to home.
The Overland Park Convention Center opened in 2002 with consultants estimating that the new facility and city-owned hotel would generate 60,000 overnight stays per year.
Overnight stays peaked at around 58,000 in 2006. By 2015, this figure had fallen to 30,346 stays. In 2018, the last pre-pandemic year for which data is available, only 23,338 delegates spent the night in Overland Park.
Despite the drop in attendance over the past decade, cities continue to build new convention centers. The publicly funded Oklahoma City Convention Center opened in January 2021.
“A study now only predicts what might happen in two or three years or more,” said Heywood Sanders, professor of public administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio who studies convention centers.
“Things remain very uncertain in the travel and hospitality world at this point. Thus, one can reasonably ask the question: “What is the cost of waiting a little?” What does it cost to wait and see, postpone it for a year or two and see what things are like in the new Oklahoma City convention center and hotel, looking to see how the convention center d ‘Overland Park works.
Sanders said the convention center industry never fully rebounded after the Great Recession, despite pressure from cities across the country to continue expanding convention center space.
“Before the pandemic, that is until 2019, the overall convention and trade show industry in this country was characterized by a buyer’s market,” Sanders said. “It’s a term used by Visit Wichita’s counterpart organization in Denver, Washington DC, in a host of other cities. Very competitive, in the judgment of some, oversized with the space of the convention center.