Convene On Site

A Resized, Reimagined Convention Center in San Jose

The tech wizards who established Silicon Valley and San Jose, Calif., as a center of innovation were known for mixing a laid-back vibe with brainpower. The same could be said for the San Jose Convention Center's recently unveiled renovation and expansion.

The $130-million project not only added 125,000 square feet of ballroom and meeting space, bringing the total usable space to 550,000 square feet, it retooled much of the center, opening it up to the California sunshine with thoughtfully redesigned areas that support collaboration.

One such space is the front plaza, where a conventional fountain was replaced by the playful Idea Tree, a 40-foot-diameter, tree-like interactive sculpture by Soo-in Yang, a South Korean architect. The sculpture allows visitors to record short messages that are combined with other people’s messages to create ambient sounds. “What [Yang] was thinking through was, ‘How can we turn the convention center inside out?’’’ said Meghan Horrigan, director of communications for Team San Jose, which hosted a fam trip to unveil the expansion project in October. “When you think about what the convention center does, it is here to generate ideas and create a place where people can interact.”

The global architecture firm Populous designed the expansion, whose bright colors and sustainable materials, including reclaimed redwood, create a warmly modern effect. There are lots of user-friendly details, such as a color-coded wayfinding system, long exterior balconies that create impromptu outdoor meeting spaces, and two facing sets of tiered “sit steps” in the lobby, where visitors can meet informally and recharge their devices. The redesign “looked at areas that were not being utilized,” Horrigan said, and used them in new ways “to create a sense of place.”

Instead of a ribbon-cutting, San Jose officials marked the center’s opening by switching on Idea Tree’s technology — it also lights up at night — at a community celebration on Oct 10. The “sculpture-lighting” coincided with the beginning of Team San Jose’s fam trip, which showcased the center and other meeting and entertainment venues for about 40 meeting planners and media into the weekend.

The city’s temperate climate meant that much of our socializing could be done outdoors, including during an opening rooftop reception. As Team San Jose Director of Sales Mark McMinn, CPA, CTA, welcomed us, he reminded me of a favorite yoga instructor, inviting us to make ourselves comfortable and do what we needed to do, or not do, to get the most out of the weekend. It was gracious, easy advice to follow.

Breakfast on Friday was at the elegant Silicon Valley Capital Club, which, on the 17th floor of an office building downtown, offers panoramic views of San Jose. The members-only club has event space that can accommodate up to 300 people for a standing reception.

After a visit to the wonderfully strange and rambling Winchester Mystery House, where a wealthy widow built nonstop for nearly 40 years, we settled into a late-morning wine-tasting class at the Village California Bistro and Wine Bar, one of many restaurants at Santana Row, an upscale shopping and dining neighborhood. We spent the afternoon lingering over lunch and throughout Santana Row’s many boutiques and shops.

A gala dinner at the convention center Friday night showed off not only a new 35,000-square-foot, column-free ballroom, but the center’s in-house F&B operation, headed by award-winning chef Gil Hitzler, who wore a cowboy hat with his chef’s whites as he stopped by tables to chat with visitors. (The kitchen also was renovated and expanded as part of the project.) For entertainment, the Symphony Silicon Valley presented Warner Brothers’ “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II,” with cartoons and images of the musicians projected on giant screens.

On Saturday, we walked from our hotels near the convention center to breakfast at The Tech Museum of Innovation, which uses interactive exhibits to teach technology concepts and illuminate the innovation process. Chris Gasbarro, chief creative officer of the event company C3, gave a presentation that also focused on innovation — enlivening the meeting experience through storytelling and experience.

From there, we walked to San Pedro Square, a dining and entertainment district in San Jose’s compact, walkable downtown. We had a festive “Okto-berfest” feast on the patio of a recent addition to the area, the San Pedro Square Market — a collective of about 20 vendors, offering food, gift, and other specialty items. Karolyn Kirchgesler, whose tenure as CEO of Team San Jose was just days old, took me on a tour of the fast-evolving area, pointing out all the new restaurants and thriving bakeries in the space.

Our tour came to a close with a high-energy roar, as we watched the city’s professional hockey team, the San Jose Sharks, take on the Ottawa Senators at the SAP Arena, known locally as the Shark Tank. The Sharks won — mirroring some recent victories at the convention center. Kirchgesler announced that there have been 178 bookings of the new space, and of those, a third were groups or businesses that had never met in San Jose.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.