Convention Crossroads

Local tourism weathered the recession well, but more expansive conference facilities might have allowed even higher revenues

Story by Sean Fitzgerald

DESPITE RECESSIONARY TIMES, visitor spending across the South Fox Valley region approached $700 million during 2009, according to estimates from an annual survey on the economic impact of tourism conducted by Davidson Peterson Associates.

And there’s potential to raise those figures substantially higher.

For years, local tourism officials have argued the region is missing out on a segment of the meeting and convention industry that caters to statewide and Midwest regional conventions, those 1,500 to 2,500 attendee events that typically rotate between facilities in Milwaukee, Madison and Wisconsin Dells. Such events typically carry on for two or three days, drawing an audience almost entirely of out-of-town guests. These attendees stay in a hotel each night, perhaps go out on the town for an hour or two after dinner, and maybe even do a bit of sightseeing if given some spare time from the convention agenda.

There are a handful of facilities in the region with the capacity to handle 1,500 people: Radisson Paper Valley Hotel in downtown Appleton, the newly renovated Oshkosh Convention Center in that city’s downtown, and the Eagle Hangar at the EAA AirVenture Museum can all hold in excess of 1,000 people when seated in a more compact theater-style arrangement. Set round tables of eight or ten up for more formal dining, and the capacity drops further on each facility, with the Radisson and Oshkosh Convention Center still able to accommodate more than 1,000.

But most contemporary convention organizers want the best of both worlds side by side – a room large enough for its attendees to sit theater or classroom style through morning and afternoon presentations, seminars and rallies, then be able to transition seamlessly to lunch or dinner by walking just a short distance to a separate room set up in a banquet format to accommodate the same size crowd. There’s no time to rearrange the convention hall to accommodate both configurations without carving out a large interruption on the convention agenda.

“For many years, the Fox Cities was home to one of the largest convention venues in the state,” said Lynn Peters, executive director of the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau. “But since 1997, a number of larger facilities have opened including the Monona Terrace (Madison), Frontier Airlines Convention Center (Milwaukee) and Kalahari (Wisconsin Dells). Large groups that used to squeeze the tradeshow portion of a convention into our space now have better options and we’ve lost a number of them to other communities.”

The Radisson Paper Valley has been able to accommodate some gatherings of a larger magnitude by working in concert with the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, where attendees listened to keynote speakers and met as a large group in the PAC, then walked across College Avenue to dine in the Radisson’s spacious 13,700-sq. ft. banquet facility. But such a configuration isn’t convenient enough for organizers of some larger-scale conferences. And that’s where meeting and convention professionals argue the area’s facilities fall short of expanding opportunities in the large-scale conference market.

A sound approach

THE FOX CITIES HAS RECOGNIZED A NEED for a modern, centrally located convention center for a number of years, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that formal action was taken to move the process forward.

Taking a thorough and comprehensive approach, the process kicked off in 2007 when the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce & Industry commissioned a feasibility study to determine if, in fact, such a facility would benefit the area. Findings from the study – released in mid-2008 – demonstrated a clear need for a larger, contemporary convention center, with the area possibly being able to support a facility as large as 140,000 square feet. The study additionally suggested locating any such development in Appleton’s downtown.

Late last year, Appleton’s Common Council brushed the dust off the feasibility study and began to look into the possibility of an expanded conference center. A special 18-member committee called by Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna began work this past April to evaluate a variety of considerations.

City of Appleton Community Development Director Karen Harkness said the group is building its work off of an initial hypothesis, that the city should move forward in the development of a convention exhibit center to complement the facilities present in the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel, and elsewhere. The committee was then segmented into seven different task forces charged with identifying proof for and against the hypothesis, Harkness said. Those task forces center on the following areas: economic impact; optional sites; design, space and use; governance and operations; financial expectations; construction financing; and quality of life.

The final product of the committee’s work – expected in November – should provide the city with a clear and convincing argument whether or not to move forward with the development of a convention center.

“That report is going to answer all of the questions from those seven task forces,” Harkness said.

Committee chair Walt Rugland devised the hypothesis approach to provide reasonable responses to the potential concerns that might be raised by the city going into the convention business. In a letter this past April to committee members, Rugland wrote: “The hypothesis approach is to state the case in terms of the project as it is now; this is to say that if we can find a reasonable site and a reasonable return on any investment and a reasonable way to finance construction and a reasonable way to cover operating shortfalls and a reasonable way for efficient governance we would build an exhibit space because it will enhance the downtown, create real economic value and add to the quality of life here.”

Ultimately, an affirmative decision could provide substantial value to efforts of the CVB.

“From a community perspective, the reason to build a convention center is economics,” Peters said. “The feasibility study indicates that construction of a convention center is likely to bring between $4.76 and $5.27 million in net new visitor spending in the Fox Cities each year.”

Though the committee is still a way from making any recommendation to the city council, the eyes of the state’s meeting and convention industry will be carefully following the next steps Appleton might take.

Back in the game

OSHKOSH REAFFIRMED ITS position as a leading option in the state’s mid-size convention market in early 2009 when it reopened the Oshkosh Convention Center following a nearly $3 million renovation project to modernize and expand the facility.

At more than 15,000 square feet, the facility is once again able to host some of the top-notch, mid-sized functions in the Midwest, with its contemporary carpeting, fixtures, signs, upscale audiovisual equipment, professional service and quality of food for the price.

“I don’t think we had any of that before,” said Wendy Hielsberg, executive director of the Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau, which manages the operations of the city-owned facility.

The pre-renovation convention center had become outdated, downscaled, and less competitive in the convention market. Similar to the Fox Cities, many of the groups who had regularly booked the facility year after year stopped returning because their group outgrew the size of the convention center, and newer, more modern facilities were opening elsewhere in the state.

Since re-opening in February 2009, Hielsberg said she couldn’t be more pleased with the financial performance of the facility. While initially expecting the revamped facility to take three years to become financially viable, she said it’s expected to be operating in the black by the end of this year. 

“I think the convention center exceeded our expectations,” Hielsberg said.

Meanwhile, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh is planning on developing a new and improved conference center to replace its Riverside Center which was rendered dysfunctional after the June 2008 floods that soaked the community.

Nearly two years later, the university finally reached an agreement on the insurance settlement for the flood-ravaged conference and training center and is considering options for a replacement facility, according to Tom Sonnleitner, vice chancellor for administrative services at UW-Oshkosh.

The university is currently conducting a market review to prepare its final plans, expecting to outline those plans late this summer. At the outset, Sonnleitner said the university would like to construct a combined welcome center, alumni center and conference center on the site of the former Deltox Building along the bank of the Fox River at the campus’s southern edge.

While the exact size has yet to be determined, Sonnleitner said such a facility would likely be able to accommodate about 500 guests in a banquet-style arrangement and include roughly eight break-out rooms. Along with a possible multi-level, hotel-like “guest center,” Sonnleitner estimated such a facility could be in the range of 90,000 to 100,000 square feet.

The idea for the guest center hotel is also being thoroughly studied as part of the current market review, Sonnleitner said, noting such a facility could provide a more upscale option to the existing Gruenhagen Conference Center which has dormitory-style guest rooms. The market study is considering how many guest rooms such a complex would provide, how the construction would be financed, and if the facility would be operated by the university or as a private, for-profit entity.

“What we’re trying to do is not compete with the private sector, but to complement what’s available,” Sonnleitner said. He expects state and university officials will make a decision on moving forward within the next few months, shortly after the results of the market study have been released.

Moving up to the next level

IN FOND DU LAC, A LACK of larger meeting space is a limiting factor in hosting any banquet-style event in excess of 300 people. Banquet facilities at Fond du Lac’s Holiday Inn and Marian University’s Stayer Center come close to holding such an audience for a convention that would also require a sit-down meal.

Recognizing this gap in the market, Oshkosh-based Rolling Meadows Development LLC is planning to renovate the former Rolling Meadows Nursing Home on Fond du Lac’s southwest side into a 100-room hotel with 23,000 square feet of conference and banquet space. That would be more than triple the size of Fond du Lac’s current largest meeting space, even allowing for multiple wedding receptions at a time.

In mid-June, the Fond du Lac County Board of Supervisors approved the sale of an additional 1.21 acres of land adjacent to the former nursing home – which was part of the county-owned Rolling Meadows Golf Course – to allow for the additional parking needed to accommodate such a conference center. Remediation of the existing building and demolition of portions of the interior of the structure is currently underway. The development group is planning to have the facility completed in 2011.