Tourism leaders look to expand Palm Beach County Convention Center

On the heels of a record-breaking year for the once-fledgling Palm Beach County Convention Center, local tourism leaders are weighing expansion of the 365,000-square-foot building to accommodate larger conventions and meetings.

The county’s Tourist Development Council voted this month to spend up to $50,000 to study expanding the convention center off Okeechobee Boulevard in downtown West Palm Beach. The study also will look at the inventory of hotel rooms around the convention center to determine whether more would be needed to support a larger center.

Tourism leaders say the expansion would allow the center’s sales team to compete for larger events, while also spurring new hotel development downtown. Ultimately, industry experts say the growth would bring more tourists, creating additional jobs and increasing spending among out-of-town visitors.

“We’re confident that the expansion of the convention center will spur additional room inventory in West Palm Beach, and the booking of much larger conventions with greater economic impact,” said Jorge Pesquera, president and CEO for Discover The Palm Beaches, the county’s tourism marketing organization.

The convention center has seen bookings skyrocket in the two years since the 400-room Hilton hotel opened next door. Last budget year, the building turned an annual profit for the first time in its 14-year history.

Before the Hilton’s opening, the convention center was limited to competing for events that would generate a maximum of about 450 nightly hotel bookings, officials have said.

But when the Hilton’s 400 rooms are combined with those at other nearby hotels, including the West Palm Beach Marriott, the Hyatt Place and the Residence Inn in downtown West Palm Beach, the center’s sales team can vie for larger events.

“The addition of the Hilton hotel has allowed us to bring in a number of clients that were not considering Palm Beach County before because they wanted a connected hotel,” said Dave Anderson, regional vice president of Spectra Venue Management, the company that runs the convention center.

By expanding the building and adding more nearby hotel rooms, Anderson said the center will compete for even bigger gatherings.

“Now we have a new group of clients that is looking at us,” Anderson said. “Our ability to book them will be limited by the size of the convention center and the size of the (hotel) room blocks that we can give to these clients. It is imperative that they kind of grow together.”

While Palm Beach County’s overall size is 365,000 square feet, the exhibit hall is limited to 100,000 square feet. Original plans allowed for doubling it to 200,000.

The overall size of Palm Beach County’s center is about half Broward’s 600,000-square-foot building. Miami Beach, one of the nation’s largest, boasts 1.4 million square feet, while Jacksonville’s Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center has 275,000 square feet overall.

The Palm Beach County Tourist Development Council, which is overseeing the expansion study, is currently seeking proposals from firms across the country to conduct the analysis. Once completed, it will be up to the Palm Beach County Commission to decide whether to move forward.

The county collects about $50 million a year in tourism taxes, which are levied on hotel stay and vacation rentals.

The 6 percent tourism tax, also known as a bed tax, is used to pay for tourism-related advertising, beach renourishment and facilities such as spring training baseball stadiums and the convention center. About $17 million a year is set aside for building improvements and new facilities.

The county recently completed the construction of a 2,500-car parking garage at the convention center. Before the addition, convention center visitors parked their vehicles in a surface lot behind the building.

The change was designed to leave room for future center expansion into the parking lot.

A key part of the study will be to evaluate the need for more hotel rooms.

“The study is really going to take a look at the current market from a hotel perspective as far as demand goes,” Anderson said. “It will look at our current business. It will look at our ability to expand and potentially what that will do for us.”

Although Palm Beach County’s tourism industry has seen a surge in hotel construction, leaders say additional hotel rooms are still needed around the convention center. On any one night, there are about 500 hotel rooms available for groups using the convention center.

“Five hundred rooms is really not a big group,” said Glenn Jergensen, executive director of the Tourist Development Council. “To get to the level of 1,000 peak room nights we need more hotels, which means we have to have a larger convention center.”

Meeting planners are looking for convention centers that have ample hotel rooms within walking distance, Jergensen said.

“Most meeting planners and conventioneers do not want to get on buses to travel,” Jergensen said. “They want to be within walking distance.”

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