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Analyst shares method behind convention center study

By BY GABE SEMENZA
May 25, 2011 at 12:25 a.m.


WHAT IS A CONVENTION CENTER? Convention centers typically have large ballrooms or entertainment areas, as well as spacious exhibit and meeting rooms. They are built to draw visitors from outside town - to host conventions and large groups. These centers typically operate in sync with a convention hotel.

Conference centers exist for local meeting needs, although they can, on a smaller scale, accommodate outside meeting needs.

SOURCE: Randy McCaslin, vice president of Houston's PKF Consulting USA.

A Houston consultant this week discussed the process used to review whether Victoria can support a convention center and hotel.

Randy McCaslin, vice president of the Houston branch of PKF Consulting USA, has about 60 days to deliver a feasibility study to the city of Victoria.

The Victoria City Council voted unanimously last week to approve a $30,000 contract with PKF. The council wants to better understand the market by examining feasibility data, which will help to attract the right private developers if such projects prove viable, it says.

McCaslin said his process includes:

Lengthy surveys of key people in the region.

A study of current economic forces, such as the business climate and growth potential.

A review of the best locations for such a center and hotel.

An evaluation of financing options, including private investment.

McCaslin will begin by surveying the region's residents, including business owners, municipal leaders, civic groups and nonprofit operators. He will interview people who would schedule conventions, for example, and learn about their needs.

Additionally, McCaslin will compile data about the types of groups that hold meetings here now. How often do groups meet? How many people, both local and outsiders, attend? What would the community do if it had a convention center?

"That is incredibly helpful and powerful in identifying the type of facility needed and if it's needed," McCaslin said. "By the time you get these surveys, you have a really clear picture of what will meet the needs of the city."

That picture includes whether Victoria needs a big or small convention center, or one at all. The data will even show the size, number and configuration of needed meeting rooms and exhibit halls.

Next, McCaslin will study economic forces that shape the city - including growth potential spurred by the construction of Caterpillar, renovation of the downtown and expansion of the university.

Once McCaslin determines if the city can support a convention or conference center, he then will zero in on the best location. To determine the best site, he will evaluate access and visibility options. Such centers fare best near retail areas and restaurants, he said.

"We will take all this information and match it up with what the city's goals are," he said.

Of course, cities' goals and McCaslin's data do not always jibe. In Alvin, located south of Houston, city leaders wanted a 50,000-square-foot convention center and hotel.

McCaslin's data, however, showed then-current hotel occupancy rates were low. So, while the city could support a convention center, it could not viably support a new hotel, he found.

Julie Siggers, director of the Alvin Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the feasibility study helped to persuade community members.

"It wasn't necessarily that our community doubted a convention center would work, but they needed to hear it from someone other than me," Siggers said.

After McCaslin completes the first portion of the study in about 60 days, he will await the city's decision about whether to progress.

If prompted, he can provide the financial details of the project, including estimated operating expenses and revenues, as well as private investment and other options.

If McCaslin deems there is no need for a hotel or convention center, the city can scrap the study's next stages and avoid incurring those costs. Phase 1 costs $16,000; progressing to the latter phases costs an additional $14,000.

Bridgette Bise, director of the Victoria Convention & Visitors Bureau, said she hopes the study shows Victoria is primed for conventions.

"I believe the study will show Victoria is in a great location for conventions, meetings and sports tournaments," she said. "In order to be able to capitalize on all of that, we need a first-class conference center and convention hotel."

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