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DESTINATION: DALLAS/FORT WORTH

Where the west (and the rest) convene
By Tim Allis |

BY THE YEAR 2000, when the American Association of Operating Room Nurses comes to Dallas for its triennial convention, some of the people who helped prepare the gathering will be dead. Of old age. That’s how “serious planning” works-way ahead of an event. And if there’s an overriding reason Dallas is one of the major convention cities in the country, it’s got to be serious planning. Very serious. The Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau, a department of the Chamber of Commerce, keeps track of which conventions and meetings are coming to town (there were almost 2,000 last year) and although the average booking time is four and a half years ahead of an event, many conventions have already been scheduled into the 1990s. If your company needs a large convention facility in January, February or March of 1988, you may have a hard time finding one available.

This does not indicate a lack of space; it indicates enormous success. Of the nearly 50 million delegates who will attend about 90,000 meetings and conventions in the United States this year, more than one and a half million will be destined for Dallas, with a total of almost two million people coming to the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. That’s a hefty slice of an annual $15 billion pie that can only be called big business. Visiting companies and organizations from Denmark to Des Moines will infuse our city with nametag-bearing guests who will take away cocktail napkins from Reunion Tower and leave behind an estimated $580 million. Approximately 30 million dollars of that, by the way, will come from beverage and sales tax alone. The Republican National Convention-the Holy Grail to convention-coveting communities- will single-handedly pump an estimated $20 million into the Dallas economy, as well as turn the nation’s attention to a city that’s more varied than many Americans realize, the skyline of which no longer resembles even the opening panoramas of the TV show Dallas.

Through the window of Charles Bass’ downtown office you can see only a part of that skyline. Much of it is blocked from view by yet another building under construction and the bright yellow crane that balances on its roof, a pendulous sign of Dallas’ stubborn growth. Bass is the director of the C&V Bureau. Wearing jeans and a Western shirt, he hardly looks like the upstate New Yorker that he is. But the Texas togs are not his usual uniform.

Today he is taking a client-someone interested in bringing a convention to Dallas -out to a ranch suitable to hold a barbecue for 1,500 hungry people. Ranch hopping is not Bass’ real job, but wooing potential conventioneers is. He and his staff of 30 have the task of publicizing the city as a convention site, coordinating negotiations between the meeting-planners (those who are responsible for locating convention sites and coordinating the meetings) and local service people (from hoteliers to jugglers) and making sure that a convention visit runs smoothly. With an annual promotion budget of $2.2 million, Charles Bass sells Dallas.

The city of Chicago spends $200,000 less than Dallas does on promotion and yet will probably double our $580 million revenue figure, but Chicago- the heart of the Midwest-has always been a convention town. New York spends $1 million more than Chicago but claims a convention revenue of only $827.6 million, even though the total number of convention visitors to New York is more than double that of Dallas.

Fiscal considerations aside, where does Dallas fall in terms of the numbers of meetings held? “We’re not permitted to rank ourselves,” says Bass, “but last March The New York Times ranked us fourth in the nation (for 1982). They estimated we’ll be in the same position this year.” In November, Meeting News, a national convention trade publication, ranked Dallas third by number of conventions in 1982 behind New York and Chicago. State by state, Texas came in second to California.

Dallas is not alone in enjoying the convention boom. Fort Worth is also seeing an unprecedented increase in business. In 1983, 325,000 delegates attended 343 conventions and meetings in Fort Worth, a tremendous jump over 1981, when there were only 219 conventions. This growth was due mainly to the building of the Hyatt Regency and the Americana hotels and the expansion of the Fort Worth Hilton.

Such new facilities have given Fort Worth the go ahead for ambitious convention recruiting. “Fort Worth has adopted a very aggressive marketing posture,” says Jef Russell III, executive director of the Fort Worth Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The future is extremely bright.”

And Arlington, midway between the two expanding cities, has realized its own potential for grabbing overflow business or cultivating its own. Arlington also has an added advantage: Six Flags is already the number one tourist destination in Texas. The city’s first convention center will be completed in the summer of 1985.



BUT BEFORE a city can attend to and charm a visiting organization-and hence increase the chance of its return -it has to get the group to come to town. Bass and his staff travel around the country (particularly to Washington, D.C., Chicago and New York) seeking out corporate meeting-planners and company board members, giving slide presentations of Big D and explaining why Dallas is a prime location for their gatherings. The C&V Bureau keeps a file of 2,500 “big groups:” potential conference parties that would use more than 800 hotel rooms. Some of these organizations come to Dallas regularly, some may be coming to Dallas and the rest may be persuaded to come to Dallas.

It’s the persuasion part that Bass specializes in. Before approaching a company’s meeting-planner, Bass’ staff finds out everything it can about the group: size, purpose of the convention, special facility requirements and delegate demographics.

There are at least 18 or 20 U.S. cities that make a highly financed, aggressive effort at recruiting conventions, trade shows and conferences, but Dallas may be one of the most aggressive. You have to be, perhaps, when you don’t have a beach or an Empire State Building to offer people. What Dallas does have, however, is a central location between the coasts made even more accessible by D/FW airport; the Dallas Convention Center (almost 1 million square feet), Reunion Arena (more than 20,000 convention seats) and Market Center (715,000 square feet of flexible meeting space); and some 33,000 hotel rooms (there were 14,000 in 1970). Add to that the myriad nightclubs, restaurants and, of course, ranches, and the appeal becomes more obvious.

Yet for all of its enticement, Dallas would never be a convention city of this magnitude without publicity or the meticulous services of the C&V bureau. It not only schedules one-on-one booster sessions with state and national meeting-planners, but it also sets up a booth twice each year at the semiannual convention of the American Society of Association Executives, a convention for convention planners and a key opportunity to promote Dallas.

However, Bass believes that the promotion push is just the beginning. “What we do that’s special is service a convention,” says Bass. “You can get them here, but if you don’t service them, you won’t get them back.” By “service,” Bass means helping the convention planner find accommodations and then acting as a liaison between the planner and local service people such as ground operators and caterers. The C & V bureau isn’t allowed to recommend local services or hotels, but they do publish a free book for meeting-planners that lists them by category. If a planner has chosen a local service (such as a company that stages musical reviews) or is considering one, Bass will set up a meeting between them in a special conference room in his department, complete with projector, screen and blackboard to let them work out the details. Bass’ office keeps tabs on a convention even after it’s under way, ready to help out if needed. It’s an attentiveness that few cities can boast.

But the people at the Chamber of Commerce aren’t the only ones who recruit and coddle. Most of the large hotels and motels do the same. The Loews Anatole-a big convention hotel due to its proximity to Market Center-keeps a local sales staff of eight plus another sales manager in Washington, D.C. The hotel staff, too, has a file of potential groups, and it makes phone inquiries, sales trips and carries out a broad-based direct mail campaign. With more than 300 groups using the Anatole for meetings each year, such efforts clearly pay off.

Most amazing, this success is shared with the other hotels. As more and more conventions come to town, hotel rooms keep filling up; the mushrooming of new, deluxe hotels simply reflects this boom. Since, ultimately, one convention is good for the entire convention industry, most of the Dallas hotels and motels cooperate with each other. Many hoteliers say that if their hotel can’t accommodate a convention group, they will gladly dispatch guests to their competitors.

It would be impossible to know just how many people in Dallas benefit from convention stints, but you can be sure that the number is high. There are, however, legions of service-oriented professionals who provide and attend to all the details one might otherwise take for granted, such as the people who take care of soft-drink machines, mobile car phones, hostesses, models, speakers, crepe paper, paper napkins, red carpets, mimes, confetti, fireworks, firemen, ice rinks, orchestras, big bands, small bands, janitors, jukeboxes and, sometimes, armadillos.

The more technical responsibilities -transportation, facility preparation, catering-often fall under the jurisdiction of people who call themselves ground operators. They are convention specialists, sometimes working in association with a convention facility. They have their own staffs plus access to many self-employed specialists. Outing and entertainment events may be organized by the meeting-planner or by a special services company such as Personal Tour Service Inc., which is run by Patty Watson-Covert. Watson says she can organize transportation from the airport to the hotel, arrange catering, contests, tours and theme parties.

Do you need an auditorium turned in-to a MASH party, complete with canvas tents and gin-filled I.V. bags? She can do it. Would you like Wonder Woman to burst into your next executive conference and announce a coffee break? Count on it. Watson once arranged a caravan from the airport to a hotel that consisted entirely of surreys, stagecoaches and covered wagons. There are several such service companies in town that make the seemingly impossible possible. When Sherry Reid of Unlimited Ideas says that she can “turn a ballroom into anything,” she means it.

Charles Bass sees one more reasonthe metroplex is a convention center,something not revealed in any of thestatistics. “The thing that people like thebest about us,” he says, “are the people-the waitress who says ’Good morning.’ Our not-so-secret weapon is ourcitizens.