Date: February 22, 2006

The recently announced $737 million enhancement program for the Las Vegas Convention Center was in large part designed by the public. Well before plans were determined for what is going to be the convention authority's single largest investment in its 47-year history, customer feedback was sought in several focus groups in Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

“There were two rounds of them: an initial one to gauge their thoughts on what needed to be addressed in the building, and a follow-up one,” said Erika Yowell, senior manager of media relations for the Las Vegas News Bureau/Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA). During the follow-up, participants were presented with a schematic of the suggested improvements to the building, which was developed as a result of their original feedback.

The groups were led by staff members of LVCVA supported by teams from MWH, a private consulting firm, and HNTB Architecture. “The renovation of the convention center is not about expansion. It is about enhancing our customers' experience. Servicing their needs is our top priority,” said Rossi Ralenkotter, the LVCVA president and CEO. “It is imperative we incorporate our customers' input into the enhancement process. After all, when they are doing business in the convention center, it becomes their building.”

Ralenkotter said the goal was to make the experience in the convention center just as memorable and exciting as the city itself. He said a major motivation behind upgrade is to make Vegas more competitive with areas such as Chicago and Orlando. “It's a highly competitive marketplace, and we need to make sure that our facility remains competitive for the next 50 years, just as the destination continues to reinvent itself,” he said.

Research sponsored by LVCVA found that attendance would fall by 10 to 15 percent by 2020 unless the center upgrades. With the improvements, attendance is projected to grow by 308,000 a year, or 1.9 million total attendees by 2020.

The result of the focus groups included an actual lobby connecting the various portions of the center, which it did not have before. “We used to joke that if conventioneers wanted to go to the lobby, they just went outside,” Yowell said.

Frequent complaints cited by focus groups included a lack of meeting rooms and congested corridors. Users also thought the decor could better represent the city's vibrant image.

Other suggestions led to a new meeting and multipurpose space, a full facility circulation space, an enclosed monorail connector and a Metro police substation on the campus to serve the resort corridor.

Yowell could not break down the actual cost of the focus groups because they are part of an overall consulting fee.

Under the plan recently approved by the center's 14-member board, the Vegas convention center will grow to 4.2 million square feet.

Some other upgrades: A new 100,000-square-foot general session space near the front of the center's existing main entrance. The South Hall is getting another 150,000 square feet of new or renovated meeting room space. An enclosed 500,000-square-foot, two-story concourse to link the North, Central and South halls on the center's west side. That will replace the outdoor pathways. A pedestrian bridge connecting the South Hall's easternmost end with the Central Hall. Roadways and drop-off areas will be upgraded to improve traffic flow and add 3,200 parking spaces. A permanent corridor will connect the new main concourse with an existing Las Vegas Monorail system.

When the convention center first opened on April 29, 1959, it had only about 110,000 square feet of space. A second exhibit hall added another 90,000 square feet in 1967. In recent years, there has been a steady stream of additions and improvements.

The Las Vegas Convention Center as of February (2,227,755 square feet) was the third largest among U.S. rankings, trailing McCormick Place in Chicago (2,560,000 square feet) and the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla. (2,572,610 square feet).

Authority officials said customer feedback will continue to be incorporated as the final design is worked out. They also said planning and communication will be widely used to help minimize the impact on convention services during the project.

Ralenkotter said the project will pay for itself. A study showed that over the next 30 years, every $1 the authority spends will generate $3 in new direct revenues or local economic impact. In phased rate increases, costs per square foot per show a day will rise from $.25 to $.29 in 2010, and $.29 to $.34 in 2013. Authority officials say the center now ranks 19 among the top convention centers in cost per square foot.

The expansion is part of five-year marketing plan geared toward expanding the destinations' growth to reach the goal of a record 43 million visitors by 2009.

Las Vegas is unusual in that it is the only city in America with three convention centers of more than 1 million square feet, including the privately held Mandalay Bay Convention Center and the Sands Expo and Convention Center adjacent to The Venetian. That has led in recent years to some friction between the private and public sector. The parent company of the Sands Expo, the city's second-largest convention center, sued the authority in 1999 to protest its use of room-tax revenue for the South Hall expansion. The dispute was later settled out of court.

Construction is set to begin late this year and be completed by the end of 2010. 

 Interviewed for this story: Rossi Ralenkotter, Erika Yowell, (702) 892-7664