CMP Series

Convention Centers Under New Management

When a convention center transitions to a new management organization lives and livelihoods hang in the balance. Here’s how four convention centers have recently handled the process.

The Hawaii Convention Center (HCC) in Honolulu
The Hawaii Convention Center (HCC) in Honolulu

Hawaii Convention Center

This past January, AEG (Anschutz Entertainment Group) Facilities took over management of the Hawaii Convention Center (HCC) in Honolulu, replacing SMG — which opened the building in 1998 and had managed it ever since then. In announcing the move to AEG, the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) had singled out the company’s international portfolio of venues. “AEG’s presence across the globe provides an opportunity to immediately position Hawaii in some of our key MCI [meetings, conventions, and incentive] markets,” HTA President and CEO Mike McCartney said in a statement, “especially in our targeted Asia-Pacific region.” For general manager, AEG tapped Teri Orton, a veteran of Hawaii’s hospitality industry who most recently served as vice president of condominium resort marketing for Outrigger Hotels & Resorts.

Why this job

“When this position came up and I was asked to interview, I thought to myself, You know, this is in the same field, but it’s a little different than what I’m accustomed to doing. I mean, it’s basically the same — selling the destination and bringing people to Hawaii, but not just for leisure. So it was a little different, and I was up for the challenge. You know, Hawaii, as an island, we’re always challenged with the destination itself and the costs tied to it. That wasn’t new to me — getting travel agents and FIT [free independent travelers] to book our destination — so it’s just on a larger scale, bringing large groups here.”

The face of new management

“I’d lie if I said I wasn’t nervous, of course. Everyone knew that this was going to be a position of challenge. It’s kind of a paradigm shift with exchange rates and airfares and everything that’s going on in our economy right now. This is a challenge, to basically try to sell the destination and convince meeting planners to convince board members to bring their entire delegation to our destination, especially because it has been branded for so long as a leisure destination.”

Turnover

“We actually retained 98 percent of our staff here [from SMG]. We have just over 75, close to 80 employees. That was a blessing for me, being new to facility management, to have the existing staff here — that most of the employees have been here since the building opened. The building has been open 15 years, so that says a lot. I looked at it as a positive for me because they knew the facility. I opened my mind to learning as much as I could from them.”

Meeting the staff

“I have an open-door policy, and for the first several months my strategy was just to listen and learn and to hear the concerns from the employees, and just open my mind to what’s going on here and learn a lot about the facility itself — things that need repair, areas that they want to improve on. I have met with every single staff member in this building, the top all the way down to the person that collects tickets at the parking booth. I wanted to put the face to the name and learn a little bit about them on a personal level as well as how they feel about working here. After I gather all my data and put it all down on paper, then I can start looking at areas that we want to implement change based on the order of priority.”

Managing the transition

“I just think communication is vital. I probably tend to over-communicate at times, but I think the employees appreciate it because they feel a sense of ownership and pride and accountability, and they feel that they’re involved in the process. Our customer-service surveys that we get back from clients that come through this building are at 98 percent [satisfactory] consistently. That doesn’t come from someone telling them what to do; that comes from them wanting to do and wanting to serve and wanting to share the aloha spirit with people that come to Hawaii. I meet with my leadership team weekly. They meet with their teams almost daily, just making sure everybody knows where we’re going and where we want to be.”

Ask a planner

The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) brought SIOP 2014, its annual meeting, to the HCC on May 15–17. “When I initially received word of the change in management companies, I was filled with apprehension,” said Dave Nershi, CAE, SIOP’s executive director. “The concerns you might naturally expect were compounded by the fact that this was our first convention-center conference. Visions of changes in policies, problems with space allocation, and unexpected budget surprises danced in my head. Luckily, none of that came to pass. The Hawaii Convention Center experience was flawless. The biggest impact it seems was on the morale of the convention-center staff. Needless to say, prior to the change they were edgy about potential staff reductions. My assigned event director was not affected, but others were.”

Pennsylvania Convention Center

Philly_Convention_Center
The Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia

SMG had a clear mandate when it assumed management of the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia, after taking over from the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority’s in-house team, last December: Fix the labor situation. In part because of the tangle of work rules arising from its six unions, the building had a reputation for being unfriendly to meetings — meaning that the new general manager would be responsible not just for leading the transition to a new management culture but also for negotiating a new labor agreement with the convention center’s workers. SMG gave the job to Lorenz Hassenstein, a 20-plus-year veteran of the convention industry whose previous experience included executive positions with Reed Exhibitions and Merchandise Mart Properties.

Why this job

“In Manhattan I ran the Piers [92/94, a Merchandise Mart venue], and had conversations with SMG along the way about going to work for them. We have a number of mutual friends, so the relationship was easy. There were a number of opportunities along the way, but most of them required a move, and Philadelphia was close to where I grew up, in Wilmington, Delaware. This was an easy transition for me to make, and it was a good career move from the standpoint of, there was a lot of work to be done here and I thought I could make a difference.”

The face of new management

“I wasn’t [nervous], for two reasons. One, I had worked here in the building in the past, so I was familiar with the challenges associated with the job. And the second piece of it I think is a testament to SMG in that they were very upfront. They’re a very straightforward and honest organization, and they were very clear about what their goals were, what the challenges were, and they were extremely supportive. So I felt like I was part of a cohesive team — an effort — to come in and straighten out operations here.”

Turnover

“The vast majority [of the center’s 80 employees] stayed. There were a small handful of people that were retained by the authority — core personnel that handle legal issues and financial issues and report up to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Then the balance of folks were offered positions with SMG. We interviewed them, of course, and tried to get an understanding of what their goals and objectives were, and then we tried to massage what they had here for personnel into positions that fit our framework.

Meeting the staff

“Anytime there’s a cultural change like this, a management change, I think people are very hesitant to trust. They’re concerned about their employment and their welfare and their families. You know, I’m no different; I’ve got a family. It’s easy for me as a manager to make sure people understand exactly what we expect of them and what we’re looking to accomplish. We’re very clear in our goals. There’s not a lot of drama in what we do. We just want people to come to work, enjoy their work, do their work, and go home. You’re always learning more about people, but I would say of the 80 people [who work at the center], 60 of them I know very well. I’m very close with probably 20 of them, I’d say casually close with the other 40, and there’s probably another 20 that I need to go find and get to know, but that will take me a little bit of time.”

Managing the transition

“My style is one of lead by example, so if I want everyone to be positive and motivated, then I’m positive and motivated, right? So my goals and agenda were to try and change the culture here at the Pennsylvania Convention Center from one of being authority-run and -driven, which is a very different culture — they were state employees — to an entrepreneurial organization that’s very customer-service-oriented. I would say prior to our arrival, the building was sustained to employ people to run a building. SMG got here, and we have a different culture. Everything we do is built around touch points with the customer — making their life easier, making their billing more transparent, making sure that they and their employees and their customers are handled well. We had a number of agendas on that front and frankly we’re not done with a lot of those efforts, but the first three to five months is where all the heavy lifting took place.

“Over time, I think people understood that they had a lot of value and we’re interested in their value and we want them to contribute. When you take over in a situation like this, there are a lot of people often who are diamonds in the rough — they haven’t really been allowed to grow; they’ve been in sort of dead-end jobs. And we’re the environment where, if you want to try something new, we’ll give you the rope to run with it.”

Ask a planner

Next year, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) will bring its Annual Meeting to Philadelphia — and the Pennsylvania Convention Center — for the first time in 16 years, specifically because of labor reforms and other changes that SMG has implemented, according to Pam Ballinger, CMP, AACR’s senior director of meetings and conferences. And AACR is also committed to the city for 2019 and 2024. “I’m very, very hopeful,” Ballinger recently told PCMA News. “Philadelphia has made the extra effort. They’ve really changed their way of doing business, and I think it’s going to pay off for everyone.”

Savannah International Trade & Convention Center

Savannah_aerial
The Savannah International Trade and Convention Center

The Savannah International Trade and Convention Center (SITCC) may be in a category by itself, because in April the facility transitioned from a third-party management company — SMG, which opened the building in 2000 — to a convention-center authority in another city: Atlanta’s Georgia World Congress Center Authority (GWCCA). “The Savannah Trade Center has long been an essential resource for the State of Georgia, and it is important that we work towards ensuring its continued success,” Mark V. Smith, chair of the Georgia International Maritime and Trade Center Authority, which operates the SITCC, said in a statement. “GWCCA has the ability to take a high-performing asset to the next level while simultaneously enhancing the synergies between Savannah and Atlanta.” Even more interesting, SMG’s food-and-beverage arm, Savor, stayed on as the SITCC’s caterer. And Robert Coffey, who was the SITCC’s general manager under SMG, moved into the same position with GWCCA.

Why this job

“I was committed in the short term to do my part in managing the transition, because the Congress Center Authority had been so forthcoming that they wanted to maintain the senior management. I’m thinking that’s because they respected the job that was already being done. So I knew that I was going to be aboard for the transitional period anyway, if for no other reason than to make sure that people saw a familiar face at the wheel. It turned out the transition was managed so professionally and so well, it might not have happened. But I’m glad it did.”

The face of new management

“Like anything, your first questions are existential: Am I going to have a job? Am I still going to exist at the other end of this chasm? It’s a credit to the staffs at both ends of the pipeline that after a while the whole existential thing was gone and people were asking questions about work rules, like ‘How is my accrued vacation handled?’ and ‘Who’s my benefits coordinator?’ — that kind of thing. It was gratifying to see, and it wasn’t by accident.”

Turnover

“In reality, not much changed at all. The entire staff cohort [of 29 full-time employees] from Savannah, from me all the way to the last parking-lot attendant, were adopted and consumed into the organization as a whole. So it just became a matter of basically signing everybody up, keeping everybody informed, and at the end of it, people who were proud to have been SMG employees for however long they had been — some of us for up to 17 or 18 years — were now proud to be Congress Center Authority employees, because they saw the same concern for getting their questions answered. They saw the same professionalism. They saw the same expectations and set of demands. Nothing changed; it was a different name on the paycheck, and that was a curiosity for about a month and now it’s like it never happened.”

Meeting the staff

“Actually, two employees [under SMG] took other opportunities, but they were going to anyway. One sales manager went back to her first love, which was the nonprofit industry, and is now a key part of United Way of Savannah; and an event coordinator went over to Gulfstream, which is one of the local entities. But apart from that, it’s all of us same chickens. I would say the mission is almost entirely still the same. The only things which have changed are some opportunities which have opened up both on the revenue-generation side and cost-saving side.”

Managing the transition

“You tell [employees] everything you know, when you know it, that’s going to be of benefit to them and that’s going to help them continue to focus on their jobs. In the end, that’s all they wanted to do. They wanted to be able to focus on their jobs, look at their schedule, plan for their time off, make sure that their boss knew what they needed and didn’t know — make sure that their boss knew that the vacuum cleaner had a screw loose or whatever. They just wanted stability and just the same stream of expectations, which we all want, which we all need. That’s what we viewed as our job — helping them not notice that bigger things were going on.”

Ask a planner

The Georgia Association of Water Professionals (GAWP) held its 2014 Annual Conference & Expo at the SITCC on July 20–23. “It’s really hard to sum up our experience at the SITCC, because there are so many good things to say it would be a really, really long statement,” said Joel Peacock, GAWP’s director of operations. “We were totally aware of the change in management at the SITCC, and while I’m sure the staff and management may have had a few hurdles to overcome, it was never seen or felt by the client. This year’s conference was described in three words: smooth as silk. The center was just as awesome this year as it has been in years past. I truly wish other centers would take note and make life easier for all of us.”

 Los Angeles Convention Center

Los_Angeles_CC
The Los Angeles Convention Center

AEG was already headquartered in downtown Los Angeles — in L.A. LIVE, the $2.5-billion entertainment complex it helped develop. It already owned and operated the Staples Center, the Nokia Theatre L.A. LIVE, The Ritz-Carlton, Los Angeles, and the JW Marriott Los Angeles L.A. LIVE. So it made a certain amount of sense to turn over management of the city-run (LACC) to AEG Facilities — and that’s exactly what the L.A. City Council did, with AEG taking the reins in December. The company appointed Brad Gessner, already its vice president of convention centers — and former general manager of the San Diego Convention Center — as senior vice president and general manager of the LACC.

Why this job

“Our leadership back in 2012 made it a priority to start a convention-center division that would focus on getting [the management contract for] the as task number one and then expanding the division, and that’s when I was hired. What attracted me to Los Angeles really was AEG and their vision, and, of course, the deep bench of resources that they have right here in Los Angeles. They’ve got a machine.”

The face of new management

“For 42 years [the LACC] had run as a city department, so the biggest challenge that they had was many, many employees — at one point, 200 full-time employees. We now have 91, to give you an example of the difference between what it takes for private management to be able to manage effectively and efficiently. Sometimes government just becomes bloated for all the reasons that I’m sure you’ve heard. But the city council, because there were so many long-term employees here, and of course unions and union representation and collective-bargaining agreements in place, they made the offer to city employees that if you want to stay with the city because you’ve got 20 years in toward retirement, that we’ll find you another job within the city.”

Turnover

“They went from about 200 full-time people several years ago to about 115 when we took over, and so what happened was most of the city employees decided to stay with the city. I think they were comfortable in the city. We interviewed many of them and made sure that they all knew we would encourage and appreciate them considering coming to work for AEG, because we wanted to keep the brain trust. But out of the 115 that were here, we ended up only hiring 15. So the others were all new hires.”

Meeting the staff

“The challenge with [having to hire so many new employees] is that you’ve got to go out and find qualified, trained, experienced people for key jobs. The good thing about that is that you get to handpick your team, and that was for me the most exciting part. And again, this is where with AEG, I’m so impressed with the company…. Whether it’s HR or legal services or purchasing, risk management, safety and security — we have departments just across the street that are experts in that area. So I had a lot of resources to draw from to be able to go out and advertise, solicit, and, in some cases, recruit. And we ended up with what I consider a dream team.”

Managing the transition

“Folks that want to be here, they’re lobbying for you to hire them because they’ve been watching Los Angeles and they also see the vision that we have, that Los Angeles is on the cusp of being a major player. You hire that kind of attitude, that kind of excitement, and then you nurture it. And the way you do that is by communication. Every other month we have an all-employee meeting and I give them all the latest and greatest information. I have newsletters that I send out to them. So, keeping everybody informed as to what we’re doing now, what we’ve accomplished, and what’s on the horizon, so they’re not learning about it in the newspaper or through the rumor mill. And then, just getting out. I’m definitely one of those folks that manages by walking around. I know our employees’ first names. I’ll stop and talk to them, give them the latest and greatest. And I’m really fortunate that we’ve got such a great team here.”

Ask a planner

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) brought The Cable Show 2014 to the LACC on April 29–May 1. “From a show manager’s standpoint, other than a few new faces, the transition to AEG was smooth and transparent,” said Lauren Dwyer, manager of programs and events for NCTA. “All previous management commitments and policies were honored. In fact, one policy was changed to the benefit of NCTA. As a meeting planner, not directly involved with the management and transition, the staff was available and attentive, to ensure a seamless show.”


 

Test Time

Earn one hour of CEU credit. Once you finish reading this CMP Series article, read the following material:

“Change Management,” a free white paper from GOAL/QPC.

“Cultural Alignment and Change During Leadership Transition,” a free white paper from PSMJ Resources, available with registration.

To earn CEU credit, visit pcma.org/convenecmp to answer questions about the information contained in this CMP Series article and the additional material.

The Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) is a registered trademark of the Convention Industry Council.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso is executive editor of Convene.