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Center expects booming first year

By , - Last modified: February 14, 2011 at 12:08 PM

The economic forecast might be stormy, but Lancaster County
Convention Center
officials are expecting a bright inaugural year.

The economic forecast might be stormy, but Lancaster County Convention Center officials are expecting a bright inaugural year.

"I think it'd be very naïve to say we can ignore what's going on in our economy, but what we have remained committed to is a laser focus on our sales and solicitations," said Josh Nowak, director of sales and marketing for the center.  "It's a luxurious, state-of-the-art facility located in the heart of a very vibrant, burgeoning arts community."

Convention center officials plan to finish polishing the bells and whistles of the $170 million facility for its April opening. The center will contain about 220,000 square feet of meeting and event space, making it the second-largest meeting facility in the region, based on total square feet of meeting space, behind only the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center in Dauphin County.

More than 20 events have been scheduled for the center's inaugural year, and more are expected to be booked. Included in the mix is a barbershop quartet competition in October that routinely draws crowds as large as 5,000 people, Nowak said. The center also will play host to a handful of consumer-oriented events, a few trade shows and several other events, including competitions, galas and ceremonies, he said.

While it is difficult to determine what attendance levels will be like during the center's first year of operation, it is important to note that the facility's adjoining 300-room Marriott Lancaster at Penn Square hotel will host its own variety of meetings and conferences, he said.

"The size of our facility, with an adjoining hotel, gives us a competitive selling advantage versus other facilities of our size," Nowak said. "Despite challenges in our economy, the one thing I can unequivocally say about the integrated facility is that interest levels remain extremely high."

Another unique selling point for the facility is the water cistern that was discovered onsite, Nowak said. A cistern is a receptacle for holding liquids. This particular cistern is strongly believed to have functioned as a safe house for escaping slaves. Guests at the center will be able to view the cistern from inside the building.

The Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County is restoring the cistern in conjunction with the creation of the Stevens & Smith historic site. The idea is to create an educational center to help guests understand the history of the people who lived in Lancaster, in particular Thaddeus Stevens and Lydia Hamilton. The duo is famous for helping to hide escaping slaves along the Underground Railroad.

"Historians are calling (the cistern) one of the most significant discoveries of the Underground Railroad," he said. "This is not a warehouse. This is not a box. This is really one of the most unique buildings, especially at a hotel and convention center, in the country."

Despite a recession that has caused a contraction in the leisure travel industry, the convention center is still able to attract a lot of attention because it's new, said Christopher Barrett, president and chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau in Lancaster County.

"It's generating an incredible amount of buzz," Barrett said. "The economy is a deterrent, but it's probably not as much of a deterrent because it's a new building."

It also helps that Lancaster County is well-known as a tourist destination. The visitors bureau is trying to use that to its advantage as it promotes the convention center for group and corporate travel, Barrett said.

Other advantages include Lancaster's thriving arts district, restaurant scene and the cultural and heritage characteristics of the downtown, he said.

Sherry Chambers said she wouldn't be nervous about opening a convention center this year simply because the economic downturn will not last forever. Chambers is the president of the Washington, D.C.-based Association for Convention Marketing Executives and the senior director of sales at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Ohio.

At the Greater Columbus Convention Center, some groups are asking for discounts, and others are downsizing their events, Chambers said. Center officials also are seeing more drive-in business, she said.

"I would just caution anybody not to get real excited and nervous about this because people are still going to meet - they're still going to have conventions, especially if you're in an area people can drive in to," she said.

Differentiation is the key to staying competitive in a down market for The Hershey Lodge, said Jill Cecala, director of northeast sales and marketing for Dauphin County-based Hershey Resorts.

The firm is working to set itself apart by being accessible and flexible to help add value for meetings, she said.

"Economic decline like we are currently in does bring its challenges," Cecala said. "We differentiate ourselves in our product offerings and our group sales and marketing initiatives."


Top five midstate meeting facilities

based on total meeting-room square footage

Once it opens, the Lancaster County Convention Center will have the second-largest amount of total of meeting space, trailing only the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center, according to Business Journal research.

1. Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center: 1 million square feet

2. York Expo Center: 191,361 square feet

3. Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts: 130,000 square feet

4. Lebanon Valley Expo Center: 72,225 square feet

5. Lancaster Bible College and Graduate School: 32,293 square feet

For more information on midstate meeting facilities, see the lists on pages 23 and 25.

-Jessica Bair

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