Convention center goes on offensive

Posted on: March 7 2011
Responding to the years-long siphoning of business because of increased competition, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center-New Orleans has come up with a unique idea for filling at least one empty slot

Convention center goes on offensive

Disaster conference created to land business, fill the center's calender

Sunday, March 06, 2011


By Jaquetta White

Business writer

Responding to the years-long siphoning of business because of increased competition, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center-New Orleans has come up with a unique idea for filling at least one empty slot in its convention calendar next year. The riverfront facility has created its own conference.

The International Disaster Conference and Expo will take place at the center Jan. 17-19. It is expected to draw about 5,000 to 6,000 attendees from around the world, said Tim Hemphill, vice president of sales and marketing at the convention center. The conference, which is expected to become an annual event, will focus on disaster preparation, response, recovery and mitigation techniques.

What makes the event special is that it is not sponsored by an association or company that leases space from the convention center and sells tickets to its members or employees to attend. Instead, the convention center is essentially putting on the event. In partnership with event production company Imago Productions Inc., the center is taking on the job of promoting and marketing the event, as well as organizing the meeting sessions.

"We spend a lot of time, energy and resources looking for business," Hemphill said. "What we've done in co-promoting is solidifying an event being here every year."

Using the New Orleans area's response to the 2005 hurricanes and, more recently, last year's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as a foundation on which to build the event, the convention center is hoping to establish New Orleans as the hub for disaster management and recovery innovation. That would, in turn, create a reason for the disaster management-minded to return to the city to meet year after year, Hemphill said. The convention center projects that the conference will grow within five years to make a $20 million economic impact and attract 20,000 attendees and 500 exhibitors.

"We take on some risks that we wouldn't normally take on, but we are also in a position to enjoy the rewards of its success," Hemphill said of the center's decision to sponsor the event.

Among the risks would be that the event doesn't attract as many attendees for which is hoped. In other cases, where the convention center doesn't have a stake in attendance, that would not matter. But if the event does take off and if it grows, the convention center stands to collect attendance fees from attendees to which it typically does not have access. Additionally, any new event held at the convention center that brings guests to area hotels increases tax collection.

The idea first came to the convention center in 2009 after Imago hosted a smaller, private disaster conference at the riverfront facility. Imago was not sure if it would repeat the endeavor, Hemphill said.

"We felt like it was the perfect opportunity to advance our interests in co-producing a show," Hemphill said.

The structure of this event makes the New Orleans facility unique among other centers around the country, said Deborah Sexton, president and chief executive officer of the Professional Convention Management Association, which represents meeting industry professionals.

"They are blazing a trail here," Sexton said. "I think you should be pleased that you have visionaries running the convention center. That's a good sign."

Typically, it is the job of the convention center sales staff and that of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau to fill the halls at the center. The groups market New Orleans to associations, such as the American Association of Cardiology, in hopes that their thousands of members will want to spend several days in New Orleans. But the opportunities to land association groups have become fewer in recent years as more convention centers have come on line. As a result of a glut of meeting space, groups that once would meet in New Orleans every four years, for instance, have pushed that out to every six years and in some cases have canceled the local rotation altogether.

"Given the state of competitiveness in our industry, (Convention Center General Manager Bob Johnson) and his team have been looking for opportunities to shift the paradigm," Hemphill said.

The method the convention center is attempting -- creating and producing its own event -- is known industry wide as the European model. It is practiced throughout Europe, particularly in Germany, Sexton said.

Sexton said she believes other convention centers will soon roll out similar plans to fill lulls in their event calendars.

"Looking at new ways to fill a major facility in multiple different ways is critical right now," Sexton said. "To be successful, you've got to be thinking about this."

. . . . . . .

Jaquetta White can be reached at or 504.826.3494.

©2011 timespic