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When Kathie Canning first came to work at the Orange County Convention Center in 1985, the building itself measured 150,000 sq. ft. and there were no hotel rooms to be found in the nearby area.

Orlando’s THE Destination for Meetings and Events

By Carl Kotala

When Kathie Canning first came to work at the Orange County Convention Center in 1985, the building itself measured 150,000 sq. ft. and there were no hotel rooms to be found in the nearby area. Today, the OCCC is the second-largest convention facility in the country with a total square footage of 7 million, including nearly 2.1 million sq. ft. of exhibition space, 74 meeting rooms, a ballroom, a 2,643-seat theater and eight food courts.

You want hotels? The area is dotted with them, including luxury hoteliers like the Rosen Plaza and the Rosen Centre, which bookend the OCCC, plus the Hyatt Regency Orlando (formerly the Peabody) and the Hilton Orlando. Throw in high-end restaurants, shopping, a busy, well-run airport and, of course, the attractions, and it’s easy to see why Orlando has been rated the No. 1 convention destination in the U.S.

More than 5,700 cities were evaluated by Cvent, an event management and registration company, on the basis of meeting and event booking activity as well as the number of meeting venues in the area. Orlando beat out No. 2 Chicago and No. 3 Las Vegas.

One of Many

As big and significant as the OCCC is, it is not the only show in town when it comes to conventions. Other sites such as the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Hotels, Hilton hotels, the Rosen properties, the Florida Hotel and Conference Center, Kissimmee’s Gaylord Palms Resort and Conference Center, and WorldGate Resort Hotel and Conference Center in Kissimmee all can serve as the perfect spot for a business event, depending on the size of the group attending.

In a 2011 study released by Visit Orlando, 9.9 million people came to Orlando that year for business purposes, with 57 percent in town for a convention or seminar/training. Among those coming for a group meeting, 59 percent (3.3 million) stayed an average of three nights. That’s a lot of potential income not only for hotels but restaurants, shops and even cab drivers in the area, especially those close to International Drive, where the Orange County Convention Center is located.

In 2012, there were 181 events at the Convention Center that drew more than 1.3 million visitors and had an economic impact of $2 billion. That number increased to $2.1 billion in 2013, which is a big jump from the $1.4 billion it generated in 2002. The OCCC helps support more than 1,000 local businesses and over 26,000 joconvention-centerbs while playing host to companies like McDonald’s and Microsoft, or hosting a medical association’s annual get-together, a religious event, or a home and garden show.

“The space itself is so flexible, you can do almost anything,” said Canning, who is now the OCCC executive director. “The shows come in and they look at it as a blank slate, and they say, ‘Wow.’”

The Numbers Speak for Themselves

Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs pointed out that economic development is the fundamental mission of the OCCC and noted that since opening nearly 30 years ago, the facility has attracted more than 26 million attendees and provided an economic impact of $30.5 billion. While the county does what it can in terms of incentives to help bring in business, the fact that the OCCC and the surrounding area have so much to offer, Orlando essentially sells itself.

“With regard to incentives, everything is looked at on a case-by-case basis,” Mayor Jacobs said. “But even if incentives may help in landing a show, we firmly believe the Convention Center, the convention district and our region as a whole are the most important selling points to our clients.

“Ultimately, show organizers will select a venue and destination that best serves and appeals to their attendees. And clearly, our OCCC is at the top of any list. As the No. 1 destination and the second largest convention center in the U.S., the OCCC is an economic powerhouse.”

In order to stay on top, the OCCC developed a client advisory board 13 years ago so it can understand what it does and does not do well. That can be a big help in competing with places such as Las Vegas, which Orlando counters by being able to promote a more family-friendly atmosphere with the attractions, great weather and the fact that it’s simply easier to get around here than some other big cities.

Challenges and Opportunities   

Of course, different conventions can bring about different challenges, such as when the International Plastics Showcase came to town in March 2013 and brought in 17 million pounds of freight … which, of course, had to be moved back out when the event was over.

“You’ve got to have the skilled labor to be able to be putting these things in and building them,” Canning explained. “You’ve got to have the food and beverage people to handle it. You’ve got to have electricians. It’s a big economic engine. When a show is moving in, there could be 1,000 people in here just to get it set up.”

As good as business is now, it has the potential to get even better as the economy continues to improve and companies begin to spend more. However, in order to maintain its ranking as the No. 1 convention destination, the county has to continue to improve its offerings.

Canning equated it to the theme parks, which usually bring in a new attraction every year to help not only attract new customers, but satisfy the current ones. That’s part of the reason why the OCCC is undergoing a five-year, $187 million capital improvement plan that will include new contemporary seating for attendees throughout the concourse area as well as digital signage, upgraded show offices and restrooms and the repurposing of existing spaces like executive lounges and the ballroom to better serve clients.

“You really have to kind of re-invent yourself all the time, otherwise people will say, ‘Aw, I’ve been there, done that,’” Canning said.

There is also a plan to conduct a study on the entire OCCC campus, which Canning said she hopes will spur a district-wide study to help plan out what the venue and the surrounding area will look like in 10 to 20 years. “We’ve got to look at the infrastructure,” Canning said. “Are the roads adequate? Transportation, is that adequate? Are these facilities what we need to do? Do we need to add to them? Do we need to change them? Do we need to upgrade them? Do the hotels have to continually upgrade? Do we have the right mix for entertainment and restaurants and do we make it easy for the customer to do business with us?”

The answer to those questions will help the OCCC, and Orange County itself, remain the top business travel destination in the country.

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