Expanaheim!

Building a bigger Mouse trap

Photo by Keith MayAt a recent sunrise service, the Anaheim Convention Center unveiled its largest expansion to date: a $177 million development that enlarged the center by 62 percent and unified the fragmented facility into one large complex. The new center—featuring the largest state-of-the-art meeting center on the West Coast; a soaring tower; a three-level glass rotunda and a 1,200-foot-long lobby—was a response, officials said, to nationwide competition for convention business, especially aggressively marketed centers in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

"Anaheim's building had become old, tired and small," said Charles Ahlers, president of the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau. "In our industry, bigger is better, and biggest is best."

But is it the best? And will Anaheim's expansion get it new business or simply enhance the competitive level of an already exceedingly competitive business? We called a few of the major players to get their thoughts.

DISEMBODIED VOICE, LOS ANGELES CONVENTION AND VISITORS BUREAU

LA Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Hi, my name is Steve Lowery, and I'm a reporter with theOC Weekly. I wanted to talk to someone there about the expansion of the Anaheim Convention Center and how that might affect convention center business in Southern California.

Anaheim?

Yes.

We're Los Angeles.

Right. I wanted to talk to someone about how Anaheim's expansion will affect you in Los Angeles.

Let me connect you with someone in research. I don't think they're there right now, but you can leave a message.

Okay, thanks.

[We leave a message.]

OlaN KELLEY, FACILITY MANAGER, AUSTIN CONVENTION CENTER

Disneyland is such a great draw. That's what people are looking for when they plan a convention: After I take care of all of my business, can I tack on some vacation time with my family? Disneyland is just perfect for that.

But, you know, they've had some safety problems there over the past couple of years. Would you use something like that to maybe scare someone off and consider you instead?

Hopefully, I don't have to go and slam somebody to get business. I want to entice folks by showing them what we have, not by going around and saying, "Anaheim isn't that great."

But what about when there are controversies? You're dealing with big corporations and organizations that are very sensitive about how the public perceives them. Like, right now in Anaheim, there's a big debate about some books that were removed from a local school.

What kind of books?

They were called Lives of Notable Gay Men and Lesbians. They were biographies.

Oh, well, I don't know how to respond to that. I don't know how many civil problems the demonstrators are causing and I . . .

Right now, there are no demonstrators.

Oh. Well. What about civil problems?

Yeah, there are no civil problems. I think they did have a conference call.

Mm-hmm. Yeah. I think that sounds like something to me that wouldn't scare anybody off. Generally, people want a hotel, and they want to go to Disneyland. They don't really care about that kind of stuff.

LOS ANGELES CONVENTION AND VISITORS BUREAU

Hi, my name is Steve Lowery and I'm a reporter with the OC Weekly.

Mm-hmm.

I was wondering if I could talk to someone there about the recent expansion of the Anaheim Convention Center and how that might affect your business.

Well, we really don't do business with Anaheim, I think.

Oh, I know. I mean, how, if, you know, they might start taking away some of your clients now that they're bigger.

Uh-huh. I'll connect you with someone in research.

Oh, you know, I called earlier and . . .

[We leave another message.]

JUDY, EXCEEDINGLY PLEASANT RECEPTIONIST, ADAMS COUNTY FAIRGROUNDS AND CONVENTION CENTER, HASTINGS, NEBRASKA

Hi, I'm doing a story about the expansion of the Anaheim Convention Center and what kind of effect this is going to have on the convention-center industry nationwide.

Uh-huh. You do realize that you're calling Hastings, Nebraska, right?

LOS ANGELES CONVENTION AND VISITORS BUREAU

. . . leave a message and they'll get back to you.

But . . .

[Disconnected.]

JOHN MARKS, PRESIDENT, SAN FRANCISCO CONVENTION AND VISITORS BUREAU

My sense is that the market is strong enough to support the growth. To be candid, we're really doing well. San Francisco is a destination. Obviously Anaheim and San Diego and—to a lesser extent—LA, are destinations as resorts. But I don't think we really compete with Anaheim because we offer more of an urban experience.

How do you sell yourself?

You know, we're like postage stamp in size, so someone can come here and walk anywhere. Obviously, you can't do that in LA. I think when you say San Francisco, you know what you're talking about; you know what you're describing. Outside of Disneyland, you might have a harder time selling Anaheim. There's less definition about Orange County and Los Angeles.

I've been told that Disneyland is a big draw for them.

Oh, absolutely; that's a tremendous draw for them. I mean, don't get me wrong, Orange County is a very compelling place. It's right on the water, and Disneyland is a tremendous asset. Though, I've heard that they've been impacted somewhat by that second-gate attraction.

Impacted?

I heard it was kind of a war zone traffic-wise.

SANDY HIMMELBERG, EXCEEDINGLY PLEASANT MANAGER, ADAMS COUNTY FAIRGROUNDS AND CONVENTION CENTER

I don't think we have much of an effect on what happens in Anaheim. We have 35,000 square feet that can be split up into seven rooms. We might have a wedding reception in one room, a family reunion in another and a high-school function in another—all on the same night. Our big events are the PRCA Rodeo and Fairfest and multiday gatherings like the Alfalfa Expo and the Walleye Association.

How do you go about selling Hastings?

I'm not really selling the area. I sell people on our customer service, which is second to none. I don't care how big a facility you're talking about. We really take care of our clients.

Okay, but if you had to sell the area . . . what would you tell people is going on in Hastings, Nebraska?

Not a whole lot. [laughing] I shouldn't have said that.

MIKE JIMINEZ, VICE PRESIDENT FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS, LOS ANGELES CONVENTION AND VISITORS BUREAU

I think it definitely creates more of a product on the West Coast for us to compete against. They can now handle a fairly large event. They've really moved more into our market.

They obviously sell Disneyland. What can you counter with?

We're selling the Staples Center that was opened last year. Across from that, they're in the process of building a 1,200-room hotel, and there are also plans for an entertainment district with shops, maybe some live theater, possibly movie screens. In addition, there's a new performing-arts center going in with the Disney Concert Hall, which will be open in 2003. And just up the street, the archdiocese is building a new cathedral that is going to have a tremendous plaza area.

Of course, that's all in the future. What are you selling now?

We're fairly aggressive here. We have a strategic plan, and we're aggressive about following it. We made goals for the next three years, and our staff is really geared up to meet those goals.

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