Designer Districts

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Songdo IBD, South Korea
Songdo IBD, South Korea

The future direction of convention center districts around the world emphasizes modern architecture, sustainable infrastructure and integrated design. Most importantly for meeting planners, they’re well connected to everything. These 21st century communities are destinations in themselves surrounded by a wealth of varied hotel inventory, creative F&B venues and cultural/leisure pursuits that are pedestrian, bike and hybrid accessible.

Besides what this saves on time, stress, transfer costs and pollution, you have limitless opportunities to create compelling offsite networking events. Here’s a look at a few of these districts leading the way into the future.

KOREA: THE AEROTROPOLIS

Songdo International Business District is located on 1,500 acres of reclaimed waterfront land about 40 miles from Seoul and 15 minutes from Incheon International Airport. Its first phase open just over a year, Songdo IBD is a fully-functioning city designed from scratch to host 65,000 permanent residents and 300,000 commuters upon final completion in 2015. The $35 billion master plan was based on the best urban designs in the world to create the planet’s first LEED-certified city, revolving around the futuristic idea of an “aerotropolis”—a major gateway airport connected to a planned city with global business infrastructure.

The Incheon subway, maintenance roads and most parking is underground to help create 40% of open space within the district. The wide boulevards lined with shops, restaurants and hotels were inspired by Paris. The canals were built to evoke the serenity of Venice, and the “pocket parks” are reminiscent of Savannah. There’s a Jack Nicklaus golf course and a 100-acre Central Park designed like its namesake in Manhattan. And all of this is anchored by the 583,000-sf Songdo Convensia Convention Center—the first LEED-certified center in Asia.

“Imagine a city with no traffic jams, where environmental controls can be managed and monitored by a mobile device,” says developer Stanley Gale, Chairman of Gale International. “US-based visitors comment that Songdo is the model of the best of what is possible today, with the ability to grow and adapt to the environmental challenges of the future.”

Microsoft, Cisco, 3M and GE were all heavily involved to sync up the entire city to your hand-held and hotel television, so planners can access attendees around the clock. At present, the top-end hotels are adjacent to Convensia: the 319-room Incheon Sheraton Hotel and the 200-room NEATT Hotel opening in March inside the striking Northeast Asia Trade Tower (NEATT), Korea’s tallest building.

Stockholm Waterfront Congress Centre + Radisson Blu Waterfront Hotel
Stockholm Waterfront Congress Centre + Radisson Blu Waterfront Hotel

SWEDEN: GREEN CAPITAL

The European Commission designated Stockholm as Europe’s first Green Capital this year due to many factors, including one of the world’s most sustainable airports, almost 500 miles of bike lanes and the highest concentration of eco-rated hotels.

The capital of Sweden is situated on 14 islands anchoring an archipelago of 30,000 islands, so its relation to water and reliance on natural resources constitute a strong part of the city’s identity. Right from the city center, groups can depart to sea aboard vessels ranging from topsail schooners to vintage steamers to sail around the islands or moor at places like the 18th century Vaxholm Fortress for Viking-themed parties.

“Sweden is at the forefront of sustainability,” says Henrik von Arnold, Director of the Stockholm Convention Bureau. “We are surrounded by the sea so the water is extremely important to us. Buyers who come here always say they appreciate that.”

Opening January in the city center facing Lake Mälaren, the 150,000-sf Stockholm Waterfront Congress Centre is a stunning glass, steel and stone structure filled with natural light. Other attributes beyond the modernist design include an auditorium seating 3,000 attendees, and an energy system rated twice as efficient as the EU green standard. In fact, the building is cooled by seawater stored in tanks below the structure. Also, the 414-room Radisson Blu Waterfront Hotel, Stockholm opens at the same time, connected to the Centre.

“The design of the Congress Centre is exceptional with huge windows and fantastic views overlooking the water,” says Mr. von Arnold. “The accessibility is an important selling point too. Our clients and organizers say themselves that they always appreciate the accessibility, not just to the city but within the city. You can walk everywhere.”

The central train station and Old Town are just a few minutes away, and there are over 2,800 hotel rooms within 1,000 feet of the Centre. Right across the street, the historic Stockholm City Hall is an annual venue for the Nobel Prize awards. Groups can rent the facility for private events, and meeting planners can choose from any Nobel Banquet menu dating back to 1901.

IRELAND: TUBE IN THE CUBE

Irish eyes are smiling about the long awaited opening of the new $518 million Convention Centre Dublin. The glass and granite venue on the River Liffey—dubbed “The Tube in the Cube”—makes a spectacular addition to the beloved capital’s haunting Viking remains, elegant Georgian squares and medieval castles.

“Now we have a purpose-built conference center with a marvelous iconic shape, an enviable downtown location and top-quality everything,” says Susan Nolan, CEO of Odyssey International DMC. “It’s changing the profile of Dublin forever.” The carbon-neutral convention center’s eco-cred is obviously resonating with buyers. In 2011, there are already 210 confirmed events including an international conference for 8,000.

The granite-clad building (the cube) is bisected by a tilted, 177-foot bay window (the tube) composed of 475 glazed panes, reflecting the fun, festive Irish welcome inside. Even water glasses and cruets are tube-shaped. The 6-story atrium holds six full-service foyers for registration areas, pre-function and food service, while glass escalators swoosh people in and out of the 22 meeting rooms, 2,000-seat auditorium and 48,400 sf of exhibition space.

Techies praise the wired space with amenities like the 17’x23’ high-def projection screens. Foodies laud locally sourced banquets for 2,000. And DMCs dig the compact layout. Says Nolan, “Where networking is king, delegates go from plenary to exhibition floor in seconds, from registration to posterboard in a heartbeat. No one misses an event because it’s too far.”

In the docklands district amid a bevy of hip new restaurants and hotels, the CCD is steps from Calatrava’s new Samuel Beckett Bridge, designed like a harp lying on its side. Stroll across the coolest bridge in Europe, and in 10 minutes you’re at Temple Bar or Trinity University. In a rush? The CCD has its own tram stop, and definitely don’t worry about getting lost in Dublin. It’s relatively small and the local citizens love to help—after a wee bit of lively conversation.

Washington Marriott Marquis Hotel
Washington Marriott Marquis Hotel

HONG KONG: HARBOUR MEETINGS

Visually, it is perhaps the most spectacular convention facility in the world, with a flowing series of rooftops shaped like the outstretched wings of a seagull. On top of that, the 990,000-sf Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Center punctuates one of civilization’s most glamorous cityscapes backdropped by a towering volcanic island and the Sea of China. The feeling you have when you’re standing in the cavernous ground level exhibition halls with 5-story windows framing the view across Victoria Harbour to Kowloon lends a very real drama and energy to any international event.

“The Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Center is one of the best located convention centers in the world, in that it’s an icon in the center of the city,” says James LaValle, Manager of Conventions, Exhibitions & Corporate Events for the Hong Kong Tourism Board. “All roads, trains and ferries lead to the convention center, which during some recurrent tradeshows can attract up to 25,000 or even more people per day.”

Part of a $180 million expansion last year, the new rooftop garden function space will amaze both you and your attendees, especially at night with the cityscape lit up in neon surrounding the event. Plus, getting there is half the fun if you’re booking the Kowloon side.

“There’s not many destinations in the world where you can have as incredible a time traveling to a convention center as taking the Star Ferry from Kowloon,” says LaValle. “And by having that Star Ferry service, it opens a vast array of accommodation options with literally tens of thousands of rooms essentially within a walk and a ferry ride away.”

The drama continues in Kowloon with the March opening of the world’s highest hotel. Featuring 312 rooms, The Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong will occupy the 102-118 floors of a brand new skyscraper with unrivaled views from the outdoor rooftop bar. There’s also an ESPA wellness facility, six restaurants and a 10,000-sf ballroom, one of the largest in the city.

LaValle seems bullish on the hotel selling well too. He says, “From the US market, the inquiry level this year has been the best I’ve personally encountered in the office in the last 3-4 years, at least.”

WASHINGTON DC: CULTURE CAPITAL

No city in the US offers the amount of cultural booty surrounding the 953,000-sf Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the nation’s capital. From the free exhibits at the 19 Smithsonian institutions to the incomparable National Gallery, this is world-class educational eye candy at your fingertips.

The challenge however for some planners bringing in citywide conventions, especially when Congress is in session, is a lack of beds and breakout space. That’s why the phones are already ringing to book the new $520 million, 1,175-room Washington Marriott Marquis Hotel opening in the spring of 2014. The LEED Silver property will house over 100,000 sf of function space including three ballrooms and more than 50,000 sf of meeting rooms. We’re told the demand is there.

“When you look at other world capitals such as Singapore and Brussels with which we compete, we are one of the most highly coveted destinations for international groups,” says Elliott Ferguson, President/CEO of Destination DC. “The new Washington Marriott Marquis will continue to catapult the convention center and Washington DC in that direction.”

Ferguson explains that due to the city’s compact nature, the convention center and the city in general offer a welcome sense of cohesiveness, complemented by the convention center’s location in the heart of the city. That is a continuous selling point for the destination because many groups meeting in DC include foreign attendees who don’t want to feel too alienated by being far away from everyone else.

“So by having a tighter-knit package of convention space, hotels, museums and neighborhood restaurants, we’re able to meet any type of planner’s needs,” says Ferguson.

Greg O’Dell, President/CEO of Washington Convention & Sports Authority, explains there’s a lot more on the way.

“The economic development around the convention center over the last 10 years has really happened at a blistering pace. Besides the Washington Marriott Marquis, we have three major mixed-use projects around the convention center under development taking place at the same time. So all of that’s going to do wonders for retail, entertainment and dining for incoming meetings and conventions.”

DENVER: WESTERN FIRST TIER TOWN

The meetings scene in Downtown Denver is looking very exciting heading into 2011. This fall, the 774,000-sf Colorado Convention Center was certified LEED-Existing Building. The new 239-room Four Seasons Hotel Denver opened just steps away, and the 202-room Ritz-Carlton Denver was recently awarded AAA 5-diamond status—a first for Denver. Last month, the new 403-room Embassy Suites Denver Downtown/Convention Center opened with 21,000 sf of meeting space.

Wherever you stay, take a look at the new EDGE restaurant at the Four Seasons with three glass-enclosed private dining rooms and a “progressive American steakhouse” menu, ie: Wagyu carpaccio and Rocky Mountain venison with wild blueberry sausage.

“With the brand new Four Seasons opening and Ritz-Carlton winning a 5-diamond rating, it speaks to the renaissance happening here in Denver,” says Rachel Benedick, VP of Conventions with Visit Denver. “Years ago, those were brands people really didn’t expect us to have. These days, I’m hearing from clients, ‘Oh my gosh, I had no idea’—so for better or worse we still seem to be a well kept secret out here.”

The convention center is centrally situated between the Performing Arts District, the Museum District, the Theater District and the newly refurbished, I.M. Pei-designed 16th Street Mall packed with restaurants and shops for all budgets. Free hybrid buses move attendees up and down the corridor from the Museum District to the LoDo District, a rehabbed warehouse neighborhood filled with food, brewpubs, sports and art venues.

“The convention center being next to the performing arts complex is huge, both for attendees to enjoy the theater while they’re in town, but also a lot of groups use that area for offsite unique venues to do receptions and closing events,” says Benedick. “What planners love about that is it’s just a hop, skip and a jump from the convention center and hotel package. Same with the art museum, which bookends the 16th Street Mall.”

Looking ahead, the city is building a 119-mile network of light rail transit connecting the airport with the historic downtown Union Station terminal in LoDo, to be completed in 2015.

IRVING, TEXAS: HI-CONCEPT HOTSPOT

Seeking to fill a niche for mid-size conferences in the Dallas/Fort Worth corridor, the new 275,000-sf Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas is an aggressively modern venue in the upscale Las Colinas community located 10 minutes from DFW. The $133 million facility is an urban sculpture with a copper skin that shifts color with the setting sun and head-turning asymmetrical lines designed to shake up the meetings market in central Texas.

Function space includes a 50,000-sf exhibit hall, 20,000-sf ballroom and 20 large breakouts averaging 1,000 sf each, anchored by a 4-story atrium with wraparound, glass-enclosed prefunction space and dining facilities. For hotel beds, there are 75 properties with over 11,000 rooms just a 10-minute shuttle ride from the center.

“This is a perfect fit for the area where small to medium-size groups aren’t going to feel lost,” says GM Charlie Beirne, suggesting an optimal group size in the range of 1,200 pax, although max capacity runs up to 4,000. “And most centers this size are not as high end with such rich appointments. You feel that opulence as soon as you walk in.”

That’s just the half of it. Opening later this summer, Phase Two includes a 600,000-sf entertainment, dining and shopping complex adjacent to the convention center, and a 6,000-seat concert hall. All of that will connect via a DART light rail transit line to DFW and downtown Dallas 15 minutes away.

OTTAWA: CANADIAN COOL

The new $169 million Ottawa Convention Centre opens in April in the nerve center of Canada’s easily walkable and lively capital city. The 192,000-sf facility includes an all-embracing glass façade with panoramic views of Parliament Hill, the Rideau Canal World Heritage Site, the National Arts Centre and the adjacent ByWard Market shopping and restaurant district.

Over 1,000 uniquely shaped triangle glass windows were married together to create the largest glass wall in Canada, and the overall effect is staggering. We popped in for a hard hat tour last year, and it looks and feels like an awesome combination of the Cloud Gate (the giant silver bean at Millennium Park in Chicago) and the “Nest,” the National Stadium used in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. That’s just the view from outside.

Inside, each of the four levels offers something unique. Level One features an open, inviting plaza and a lobby hall with a picturesque view of the Rideau Canal. As you enter this grand facility you may be caught up gazing at the Log’s End Wall—a tribute to Ottawa’s historic roots in the lumber industry.

Level Two, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, bridges to the 495-room Westin Ottawa Hotel and its 44,000 sf of function space, as well as the Rideau Centre Shops with 180 stores. Level Three features the center’s most spacious pre-function space, and Level Four houses a 21,300-sf ballroom, what many expect will become the city’s signature meeting place. Presently, the convention facility is aiming for LEED Silver certification.

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