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Community Engagement is Key to Aligning Expectations

By any measure, convention centers are generally very big factors in both the life and the built form of a city.

They are major drivers not simply of visitor traffic, but also — by virtue of the events they host — of a city’s economic, academic and professional reputation and engagement. At the same time, they are often very prominent and even iconic structures in their own right – usually occupying key locations and featuring qualities that represent much of what a destination wants to project about its uniqueness and values. This means they drive not only the appearance of the city but many critical issues, such as the flow of people and traffic, the location of related infrastructure like hotels and many other issues that directly impact the lives of the local citizenry.

As a result, center managers, along with planners, developers and owners – the latter very often local or regional government — should be deeply engaged in the broader overall strategic planning processes for the destination. However, for reasons ranging from jurisdictional divisions to simply having the ongoing demands of operating a demanding business in what today is a very competitive environment that is often simply not the case. The result is the loss of what otherwise might be an important set of synergies that would strengthen and align everyone’s interests in supporting city strategy.

But the simple fact is that centers represent one of the largest single infrastructure investments governments are called upon to finance in our respective cities – and their managers need to be able to support those investment decisions with some very good rationale as to how centers contribute to overall city advancement rather than just in the narrowly defined terms of the revenues they generate. That implies a willingness to participate in broader city development processes when called upon, and to bring an awareness of the broader benefits and impacts associated with centers to those conversations.

And what are those processes?

First, and most importantly, are the economic development and inward investment programs of the destination. Events taking place in convention centers are typically those that attract participants with the most to contribute in this regard – business, professional and academic leaders whose expertise and investment potential is generally exactly what such programs are looking for. Centers can help target priority areas if they know what these are – and, in turn, can benefit by the contacts and leverage that economic development agencies can deliver to a center’s marketing efforts.

Secondly is the city planning process that generally shapes the requirements that buildings have to live up to, and who can be unfamiliar with the nature of today’s industry and the kinds of expectations that have to be met to be competitive. It is usually these agencies that determine or at least influence everything from location to site constraints via zoning and building requirements, areas that impact the kinds of proximities and relationships critical to a successful center operation. And what may suit the aspirations of city planners may not necessarily be what’s needed to succeed in the events market so that is a conversation that needs to take place sooner rather than later.

And finally, there needs — more than ever before — to be a good exchange with the organizations that are shaping the image of a city through the marketing messages being projected to what are often the same audiences. Such messages need to be aligned in order to function at all, let alone meet what may be an array of different requirements, yet this is a conversation that in many cases simply doesn’t take place. What sells as a leisure message may be very different from what works for recruiting business and investment and different again from what’s needed to succeed in today’s compliance-sensitive meetings market. That alignment is possible – but only if there’s a willingness to recognize and respond to what can be the very different needs of different interests.

AIPC’s 2015 Annual Conference theme – Engagement – was aimed at creating a knowledgeable exchange on this key aspect of center management. From keynote speakers to interactions amongst center managers themselves, it explores some of the most important aspects of the interface, including the role that centers can and should play in supporting a city’s evolution as both an economic entity as well as a place to live.

Knowing how these various elements can work together more effectively is a key step to developing a better and more influential form of interface – but so is promoting a better appreciation of how getting input from center managers with a good understanding of meetings industry dynamics will ultimately support the aims of others, from local elected officials to planners and from destination marketers to economic development authorities.

As has been seen regularly in the more successful destinations, this kind of alignment benefits everyone – and helps limit the frustrations that occur when various players end up working at cross purposes simply because they’re not aware of how their actions are impacting others. But working together demands a good understanding of what others are trying to accomplish and how they go about doing it – something we can all do a better job of as we strive to meet our collective responsibilities to the communities we represent and serve.

Geoff Donaghy is AIPC president, CEO of International Convention Centre Sydney and director of convention centers for AEG Ogden.

For more information, contact marianne.de.raay@aipc.org or visit aipc.org

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