Behold the Pandemic Proof Convention Center
Bloomberg Businessweek US|June 20, 2022
An optimistic architect hits the road to pitch bold new event space expansions, hoping dentists and accountants are once again ready to schmooze in style
By Devin Leonard

In a better time, the five exhibition halls of the BMO Centre in Calgary might have been flooded with thousands of dermatologists or tax attorneys. You can imagine their voices as they roam a sea of exhibitors’ booths, bleary-eyed from the previous night’s barhopping, wondering how they’ll clear their heads in time for happy hour. Instead: 250,000 square feet of dead silence, much as the center has been throughout the pandemic.

Listen carefully, though, and you can hear unexpected activity—the low thrum of cranes and construction workers going about their business outside. Counterintuitively, construction is under way on a $390 million expansion, planned and financed before the pandemic began, that will double the BMO Centre’s size. And who’s here today to take it all in but Michael Lockwood, head of the convention center team at Populous, an architecture firm in Kansas City, Mo. “You kind of have to pinch yourself,” he says. “You’re, like, all right, it’s happening.” Bundled in a black overcoat on a wintry February day, the designer gazes up at the steel skeleton rising beside the existing building and describes what the expanded center will be like when it opens in 2024.

On the ground level in front of us, conventioneers will flock to airport-style retail, including a cowboy couture shop featuring gear appropriate for the annual Stampede festival held nearby. For the second level, Lockwood conjures images of delegates warming themselves and swapping business cards beside an enormous fireplace meant to evoke the spirit of the West. And on the third level will be what Populous describes as the center’s “crown jewel”: a 50,000-square-foot ballroom where black-tie-clad revelers can network while marveling at the Canadian Rockies.

This vision presumes, of course, that the convention center trade is about to recover—and swiftly. The proposition is hardly guaranteed. Few industries have been more devastated by the pandemic. In 2019, 35 million people attended professional conventions and trade shows in the US, according to the industry-funded Center for Exhibition Industry Research. The next year the number plunged to 7 million after cities and states outlawed large gatherings and turned convention centers into Covid-19 hospitals and homeless shelters. Layoffs were widespread at trade associations and professional societies, which make much of their revenue filling conventions with paying members and high-spending exhibitors. Virtual events couldn’t make up the difference. “They just didn’t make any money,” says Mark Tester, executive director of the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando. Major upgrades were canceled or put on hold, and everyone hunkered down to wait out the pandemic.

With most convention centers reopening last year, attendance rose to 11 million, and CEIR forecasts that the head count could be as high as 36 million next year. Others are more pessimistic about when large-scale gatherings will return. “I’ve been to an event that has 500 people,” says Kristi White, chief product officer at Knowland, a tracker of the US meetings market. “But an event that has 20,000 people? I’m going to take a moment and think about that. I’m still wearing a mask on a plane.”

And yet some major convention centers, like Calgary’s, have expanded during the pandemic, in many cases adding pragmatic touches such as hospital-grade air filtration or extravagances such as outdoor terraces and rooftop ballrooms. The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York planted a 1-acre farm on its roof. “These are pumpkins, peas, beans behind them. Onions, leeks, garlic over there,” says Alan Steel, the center’s chief executive officer, as he proudly strolls its perimeter.

Lockwood is hustling to get in on the action. In 2020, Populous was the top US convention center designer, with $24 million in revenue, according to Building Design + Construction magazine. But then it had big projects in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Orlando halted because of the pandemic. Other parts of the company’s sports and live event business are humming again, landing splashy projects including a stadium for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and a climate-neutral events arena in Munich. But conventions haven’t followed suit.

Lockwood, like many in his line of work, maintains that individuals need to congregate in person and that the industry can rebound and even get stronger. To succeed, he’ll have to convince risk-averse clients that pricey makeovers are just the thing to draw conventioneers back. Even in the best of times, he concedes, that can be a challenge. “People don’t usually go to conventions for fun,” Lockwood says. “Unless it’s Comic Con.”

Lockwood wasn’t destined to become a convention center superfan. Tall, bearded, and something of an introvert, the 45-year-old grew up in Redding, a small city in Northern California. He ran track at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, graduating with a degree in architecture in 2001. Then he joined the sports division of architecture firm HOK, which would later be spun off as Populous. One of Lockwood’s first assignments was to briefly try out each of the 68,000-plus seats in Gillette Stadium, the new HOK-designed home of the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass. “You’ve got to sit in it and make sure that it’s bolted in correctly,” he says.

But conceiving palaces where the likes of Tom Brady would throw spirals appealed less to Lockwood than doing it for thousands of Zumba instructors to trade best practices. “Many people find them as exciting as the DMV, just another department of the local government,” he says of convention centers. “Sorry, we don’t think that.”

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