Keeping Pace

City’s convention leaders work hard to remain competitive

By Sarah Baker

The Tennessee chapter of the American Institute of Architects selected Memphis for its recent annual convention, not only because of the city’s history and entertainment but for its charming design.

Robert Ivy, CEO of the American Institute of Architects, spoke at the Tennessee chapter of AIA’s annual  convention along with event organizer Connie Wallace earlier this month at The Peabody hotel.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

“Memphis is so graphically appealing with the bridge over the Mississippi River – it appeals to all of the senses, and I think that’s important to architects,” said Connie Wallace, executive vice president of AIA Tennessee. “We had an exhibit hall and we created a streetscape with Beale Street as the center of it and we actually sold street names to some of the vendors that were there. We had flippers who came in and a jazz band.”

But the event’s success wasn’t just internal. The city rolled out the red carpet for the 400-plus attendees during their stay at The Peabody hotel.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. made a video for the group called “Why Come to Memphis.” And to encourage members to get out and about, Chooch Pickard, executive director and chief design officer at Memphis Regional Design Center, negotiated with MATA for members to ride the trolleys for free.

“We were able to pick up the flavor of Memphis in everything we did,” Wallace said. “The evaluations we got just got raves for the city.”

As the city competes for economic development deals, it also dukes it out for the convention and tourism business, said J. John Oros, executive vice president and chief operating officer of convention development at the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“Cities from all over the country are competing for many of the groups that we’re going after, it’s hyper-competitive,” Oros said. “We’ve found that Memphis competes not only with other cities with convention centers, but with large convention-sized hotel properties that can house many of the groups that we’re going after, under one roof in their hotels.”

That’s why on July 1, the agency took over management of the 125,000-square-foot Memphis Cook Convention Center. The move was a way for the CVB to offer the venue and hotel package in one fell swoop, streamlining the booking approach for the meeting planner and making it more user-friendly. Nashville’s Opryland, for example, has had great successes with this business model, Oros said.

The Tennessee chapter of AIA held its annual convention in Memphis. The city is working to attract more large conventions and boost the Downtown economy.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Also appealing is that the CVB is a nonprofit organization, so it was able to offer a lower management fee than SMG, the private company that ran the center for years.

CVB’s new management also put the hotel-motel bed tax under one authority as opposed to two. This makes the bureau the largest stakeholder as the recipient of revenues in that category.

“Now we’re in a position to where we can use those dollars or communicate to the city and county where those dollars are best spent, either in marketing the city for meetings and conventions, and/or putting those dollars back into the physical plant of the Cook Convention Center,” Oros said.

Current ramp-up efforts for the center include a new website,, new signage throughout the building, and work with the UrbanArt Commission to bring in Memphis artwork – all to give guests a sense of place, Oros said.

Several service contracts have been put out to request for proposal and are being evaluated. For example, Memphis-based ServiceMaster was recently awarded the cleaning contract for the center.

Visionary plans down the road – contingent on financing – are to re-skin the exterior of the building and to enhance the 1974 section of the building cosmetically so it’s more consistent with the newer section of the building that was finished in 2003, Oros said.

There are also potential plans for converting one of the smaller exhibit halls, South Hall, into breakout meeting space.

Kevin Brewer, chief operating officer of Destination King, said the CVB taking over the convention center was a great synergistic move because it’s one step in the right direction to improving the city’s infrastructure. One of the main challenges his business faces in luring corporate gatherings here, however, is venues that once held 400 people or more – such as Pat O’Briens or the Gibson Lounge – are now closed.

“We’re very limited in what we have to offer Downtown for that to get them outside of the hotel,” Brewer said. “We need to look at that plan if we want to continue to be a player in this business, not only from a bureau’s perspective, but also the city’s perspective.”

It’s a concept Arnold Perl, chairman of the aerotropolis initiative at the Greater Memphis Chamber, knows all too well. He was instrumental in bringing the Memphis Grizzlies here about a decade ago – an asset the city could have lost if it didn’t build an arena like the FedExForum that met NBA specifications.

“We said we’re not here to build Pyramid II,” said Perl, now an attorney with Glankler Brown PLLC who chaired the FedExForum building committee. “Twenty years earlier, we may have lost an NFL franchise because of the city’s inaction in building a new football stadium.”

Memphis has the geography, cost structure and entertainment attractions to be an outstanding venue for conventions, Perl said. But if the city doesn’t move to have a modern convention facility, then the management abilities and connections that the CVB has will be “sorely diminished.”

“Peer cities, like Nashville and Indianapolis, are gaining national prominence and have become a city of choice based on their abundance of new convention facilities and an abundance of hotel rooms,” Perl said. “Memphis cannot expect to remain a leader, even in mid-sized conventions, unless it has up-to-date convention facilities.”