Looking at the future of convention business in Tulsa

Thursday, February 17th 2005, 6:11 am
By: News On 6

Tulsa's new downtown arena is the talk of the town these days. Plans for it are well underway, in fact this week; details of the state-of-the-art building were unveiled.

Revamping Tulsa's convention center is next on the drawing board, but after years of work and $180-million, will the business be there? Just how many conventions will come to Tulsa? News on 6 reporter Heather Lewin takes a closer look.

Suzann Stewart with the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce: "With the convention center we really have an opportunity to bring us into the next generation." While workers are just sprucing things up for now, eventually the plan calls for turning the existing arena into 38,000 square feet of ballroom space, with a series of upper and lower level meeting areas. All designed to bring in the convention crowds.

Suzann Stewart: "There's a tremendous amount of business we've identified over 900 types of events and activities that could use one or both buildings." While convention centers are growing nationwide, events for the most part, are not. A recent Brookings Institute study says the countries largest trade shows are attracting the same size crowd they did 10 years ago and that bookings in major cities like St. Louis and Dallas aren't showing improvement. Despite that, public capital spending on convention centers nationwide has doubled in the last decade to $2.4-billion annually. That's a 50% increase in convention space since 1990.

And nationwide, 44 new or expanded convention centers are currently being built. Tulsa Chamber of Commerce members say the key to success with the new improved convention center will be selling it. They say reports of setbacks in other cities aren't a concern because of what Tulsa has to offer. Suzann Stewart: "Oh not at all, not at all, Tulsa, we've always been very targeted in how we approach our markets."

Recently the biggest out of state clients have been religious groups and law enforcement agencies. Officials say businesses like Wal-Mart and O'Reillys have outgrown Tulsa, one more reason for the expansion. While not naming specific future bookings, Stewart says she's already attended trade shows, thrown out some diagrams and the interest is amazing. "One of the great things about Tulsa is when you meet here, people do make you feel welcome and you can't duplicate that experience in larger communities."

Local convention organizers say lower numbers nationwide don't necessarily reflect a drop in events. There's simply more competition out there, more locations for groups to choose from.