COBO Convention Center Detroit Revitalizes Meetings & Conventions

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COBO south entrance
COBO south entrance

There’s no doubt that Detroit is undergoing an innovative rebirth at the moment; a thriving downtown area with huge options for meeting/convention groups the ultimate goal. There have been massive improvements over the years, bringing in cultural venues, entertainment, culinary options and large meeting hotels. The biggest project by far is the colossal renovation of the COBO Convention Center. We spoke with Thom Conners, SMG regional VP and GM of the COBO Convention Center to learn more about Detroit’s latest renaissance.

What is the status of the renovation of the convention center? 

We started a $300 million renovation of the COBO Convention Center a year and a half ago. We are halfway finished right now. At the same time there is new ownership here to bring business back to Detroit and enhance COBO’s ability to service contemporary groups of the conventions, meetings and trade show industry. They have created the design for the renovation, initiated construction, hired new catering, new management to oversee all of the construction. For a project this size, they have done an incredible amount of work and our bookings have doubled in terms of annual citywide conventions coming to the COBO center. The North American International Auto Show has been around for over 60 years, bringing in over 750,000 attendees. That’s something the new owners worked to keep in Detroit in addition to other former clients coming back to the city. The renovation is a complete upgrade of the entire facility. COBO was built in 1961 and renovated/expanded in 1989.

The first piece of the renovation that has already been completed has been the adaptive reuse of COBO Arena onsite. We took the shell, gutted it, put in a midlevel floor and created a 40,000 sf ballroom/pre-function space on the top level and 25,000 sf of meeting rooms on the floor level facing the river. Then we built a 30,000 sf atrium/lobby entrance that is all glass, facing the river walk and downtown. There’s very dramatic architecture here. It opened on September 7th and we’ve already used the ballroom for groups up to 10,000.

What’s next for the project?

The second phase includes an upgrade to the oldest part of the building, the south side meeting rooms. We’re adding two new junior ballrooms, conference rooms, new VIP rooms, and breakout meeting space. The third phase will be a renovation of the meeting space on the south side and the concourse/lobby space. The renovation also includes a new sound stage and TV production studio. It will be unveiled at the auto show in early 2015. The renovation will round out the meeting space at 190,000 sf. We’ve also added new WiFi that supports up to 30,000 devices. The new architecture includes a glass curtain wall that provides dramatic views of the river that expands to the city and a giant 120×30 screen that will publicize all events that are happening at COMO. There’s a huge branding aspect to that. We’ve also upgraded our F&B space, including a 230 seat cafe called the City View Lounge. Featuring Detroit style cuisine, pizza, burgers, Greek food and Polish cuisine. Another concept that we have added is Go Natural, a fast, fresh and healthy alternative to dining. There’s also craft beer and BBQ.

How accessible are the large group hotels? 

We’ve got a very compact downtown with an effective people mover. There’s a stop right in COBO center to connect the nearby hotels with the convention center. Popular nearby hotels include The Westin Book CadillacDetroit Marriott at Renaissance Center and the new Crowne Plaza Detroit Downtown Riverfront that just opened. Many are walkable from the convention center.

Why should groups book Detroit?

Detroit is coming back, especially the reinvestment of downtown. There’s new corporations moving into the city, including Blue Cross Blue Shield and Quicken Loans. There’s gorgeous architecture and walkable areas throughout all of the different neighborhoods. The established corporate base in Detroit includes architects, medical practices and 10,000 new residences. The downtown area is expanding and there’s classic restaurant names like the London Chophouse. There’s a lot of old and new merging, with every kind of cuisine you can imagine. There’s also a lot of food trucks and bicycle tours. There’s a great flow in this area.

Business is up, bookings are up and hotel occupancy is climbing. The River Walk extends over 3.5 miles from COBO, all the way to the Bell Isle park. You’ve got a variety of areas to investigate, including state parks, recreation areas and urban areas. Midtown is an area with a lot of entertainment activities, wine bars, breweries and a large amount of new residences are located. It’s a great place for groups to roam pre/post meeting.

What is the takeaway for groups who choose Detroit?

You’ll get an urban experience, a historical experience and an entertaining experience all in one city. It’s full of culture and surprises that are old and new. The COBO center has been one of the main convention centers in the United States since 1961 and prides itself of engineering, automotive and educational conventions. We are currently growing and expanding. The rebirth of COBO is mirroring what’s going on in the city of Detroit. It’s a very exciting time to be here. Everything is changing in a very safe and secure downtown environment.