The Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center is well-maintained, well-priced, spic-and-span, useful. To an expert’s eye, the facility seems younger than its seven years.
Still, it lacks business.
Clients are pleased with the service they receive. They like the food and the way staff members seem ever-ready to provide assistance.
Still, too many of the facility’s rentable rooms are empty on too many days.
“It seems logical why you’re underperforming,” said Bill Krueger, a Minnesota consultant whose firm, CSL, was hired last year by the city for $48,500 to provide an overview of operations at the convention center.
He blames a lack of nearby hotel rooms available to accommodate large conventions. He calls that absence of rooms “a major constraining factor.”
Yes, Hotel Murano counts 320 rooms. Yes, Courtyard by Marriott offers 162. And yes, although not noted in the report, a 164-room Holiday Inn and Express is under construction in the Brewery District.
But these rooms are not all available to convention planners. The city has no agreement asking that the hotels reserve blocks of rooms, presumably at reduced rates, to large groups whose events may occur three, perhaps four years from now.
Krueger’s report – provided to a city council committee on March 7 – calls for more hotel rooms.
It also recommends a major change in the way convention space is sold at the convention center.
“The facility is maintained quite well and was observed to look newer than its seven years of operations would indicate,” said the report.
The facility is clean, with housekeeping staff doing their jobs “proactively.” Management works to find efficiencies. Storage space is well-used. Equipment is well-maintained. Security is sufficient.
Tables and chairs are cleanly stacked. No noticeable stink hovered in the garbage collection area. A “comprehensive sustainability program” is on a par with other facilities in the Northwest. The glasswork at the entrance is clean. Feedback from clients shows that the food service, provided by contractor Aramark, is “rated highly.” The prices “were observed to be fair and are consistent with catering pricing at local hotels.”
There are, however, some minor problems.
Management should plan for capital expenditures, as some systems – roof membranes, interior finishes, food service equipment – will require a “significant investment” over the next decade.
The concession stands and portable food kiosks need refurbishment, the report suggests.
Parking remains problematic, with the self-pay kiosk at the in-house garage often “inoperable.”
Down from a recent list of 28, the convention center employs 26 full-time positions – a “number that appears to be light, and may, in fact, be stressing operations.”
By comparison, the convention center in Spokane employs 37; in St. Paul, 42; in Portland, 112.
“One of the largest areas for improvement,” the report says, “would be to shift to a more traditional industry model for convention center sales, marketing and booking. This would involve contracting with the Tacoma Regional Convention and Visitor Bureau to give them responsibility to sell and book economic impact-generating conventions, conferences and trade shows.”
Which sound like a good idea.
But there’s tension.
“Through our interview process, it was apparent that some material discord – and even some mistrust – has and does exist” between the convention center, visitor bureau and sales staff at area hotels.
Today, three convention center employes sell dates and space for conventions, trade shows, meetings and other gatherings.
Under the model proposed by CSL, the regional convention bureau would have responsibility for “marketing, selling and booking long-term convention, conference and trade-show events” at the convention center.
Some sales staff would remain at the center, under this proposal, and would sell smaller events – the balls, parties and other regional gatherings that would fill out a calendar already marked with dates long-reserved for out-of-town guests with their out-of-town money.
This, said the report, is the most common way publicly owned convention centers operate.
And it would take more money to make more money.
The current budget at the convention bureau “is significantly lower than the vast majority of the two dozen comparable market DMOs (or ‘Destination Marketing Organizations,’ the common term for convention bureaus),” said the report.
In the current city budget, the bureau does receive $350,000 annually from the convention center account, for which it promotes tourism in Tacoma.
Shauna Stewart, interim executive director of the bureau, said her organization creates a visitors guide and destination videos as well as marketing the Tacoma brand at trade shows and within meeting-planner and travel-related media.
The TRCVB promotes other venues in the area, including the Landmark Convention Center in the Stadium District and venues in Puyallup, Lakewood and elsewhere.
If the bureau did accept responsibility for selling the downtown center, Stewart said, the TRCVB would install a separate sales team.
Which would cost money.
“If the TRCVB is to be effective in leading and executing the non-local convention marketing, sales and booking effort for the GTCTC, additional funding sources will need to be allocated,” said the CSL report.
To insiders, the suggestion to outsource sales from city staff is not new.
In 2011, leaders at the convention bureau favored the approach, arguing that sales staff at the convention center were paid a set salary – according to former center manager David Bobo, of between $45,000 and $80,000 – rather than being incentivized with commission-based pay to book events.
By law, city employees may not receive commissions for sales. Nor may city staff members provide the level of “gifts” that might be necessary to secure bookings – gifts including dinners, souvenirs or transportation.
Today, with the loss of executive director Tammy Blount to a bureau in California, the convention bureau is seeking new leadership.
Additionally, bureau board chairwoman Shelly Schlumpf, also president and CEO of the Puyallup-Sumner Chamber, said recently that she has a responsibility to all bureau members including hotels and motels throughout Pierce County. Booking gatherings at the convention center could be viewed as competition for those businesses, so the bureau might establish a separate sales operation for the convention center.
“I need to get more information,” she said.
She said she has requested, but not received, financial information concerning sales at the convention center.
“Our board would agree that this is an opportunity that is worth investigating. The caveat is that we are without a CEO,” she said.
The bureau, she said, expects to hire a new leader by May 1.
“Right now they’re in search for an executive director. We’re trying to be sensitive to that,” said Rob Henson, interim facilities director for the city.
He counts among his responsibilities operations and sales at the Tacoma Dome as well as the convention center.
He has read the report from CSL and has yet to make any recommendations to the city council or city manager.
“We’re taking the information that is presented in this study and we currently strategizing how best to approach it,” he said.
“At the end of the day, we know that we need to bring more conventions to town.
We’re looking at everything that is available to us to make that happen.”
C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535