By Sarah Jamieson
The St. Charles Convention Center just celebrated its first birthday, and it’s already outgrowing itself.
That won’t be a problem, though. Forward-thinking building design will enable the center’s south side to be built onto with ease in the future, said Susan Sarakas, sales director for the facility. In the meantime, the 154,000-square-foot center is equipped to host groups of varying sizes. Designed by Peckham Guyton Albers & Viets and constructed by Paric Corp., it opened in April 2005 and is joined to a new, 296-room Embassy Suites Hotel built by John Q. Hammons Hotels.
Owned by the city of St. Charles and managed by Global Spectrum, the $34 million convention facility opened its doors on schedule—and $2 million under budget.
A feasibility study found that in order to be successful in its first year, the new center would need to book about 119 conventions in 2005. According to Sarakas, the facility more than doubled that number, hosting 275 groups last year. Small board meetings and large consumer shows feel equally at home in the new facility, which has rooms of varying sizes and can accommodate myriad meeting needs.
At the center of it all
Main attractions include the convention center’s vast, 16,200-square-foot Grand Ballroom and its cavernous, 27,600-square-foot main exhibit hall. The latter can be expanded to more than 35,000 square feet when opened up to the adjoining Junior Ballroom; the exhibit hall also offers a concession window for hungry conventioneers. On-site catering, a cyber cafe, state-of-the-art sound and video technology, plentiful Internet access, a landscaped courtyard and other amenities round out the facility’s modern but comfortable meeting accommodations. The center’s Partners for Progress boardroom offers plasma screens, as well as technology hookups built into a $50,000, state-of-the-art conference table.
Some of the smaller meeting rooms feature direct access to the outdoor courtyard, which many planners find a plus, according to Sarakas. Phone, electrical and data ports are built into the floors in some of the larger rooms, so exhibitors don’t have to be next to a wall in order to get connected.
Earth-toned decor, natural plants, skylights, plentiful windows and inviting furnishings throughout the new facility make it appear more like a comfortable hotel than a convention center, said Donna Costellia, assistant director of the St. Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau. Even the Grand Ballroom features a large window to let in natural light.
The center’s atmosphere is so warm and welcoming, even wedding parties have begun booking its spaces, Sarakas said. “Another thing that has surprised me is the number of St. Charles-area high schools wanting to have their proms here. Before, they often had to go outside St. Charles to hold them, but the kids’ parents feel better keeping them here.”
The center of many efforts
Bringing the convention center and hotel to life was no overnight task. Costellia said the facility arose out of a 10 year cycle of planning and fund raising. “It took many years to put the project together financially,” she said. “We, the bureau, started ‘selling’ it way before it was built. Normally associations and other conventions book space three to six years out, so we knew we needed a head start.” A tax on St. Charles city and county hotel rooms was established more than 10 years ago to help pay for the new facility, Costellia said.
“We had several different hoteliers who looked at the site before Hammons decided to come in,” she said. “We felt we needed that kind of partnership. Any industry study will tell you that you need an anchor hotel to make a center like this work. Our convention center has one just 50 feet away.”
Several possible locales were considered for the new convention complex, including land just north of Interstate 70 and a site that now houses the Foundry Art Centre.
Located a stone’s throw from Interstate 70, the prominently visible convention complex is its own billboard. It’s on the south side of the interstate, just 10 minutes west of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, and 20 minutes from many area attractions. St. Charles’ popular historic district is a couple minutes away, as are a Bass Pro Shops store, Lewis and Clark museum, casino gaming, the Art Centre and many other points of interest.
The new convention center is as comfortable handling small groups as it is hosting large trade shows. Organizations such as the Missouri Writers’ Guild have booked space for 200 attendees, while Missouri’s truckers’ association and the St. Louis Women’s Show—formerly the Working Women’s Survival Show—can bring in thousands.
The center attracts organizations of all types, from social fraternities and engineering associations to Shriners’ societies and agricultural groups. Golf, home and boating expos have no trouble holding their events in the trade show hall, whose bay doors allow exhibitors to drive their trucks onto the show floor for booth setup and tear down.
In September, the Missouri Governor’s Conference on Tourism will meet at the convention center, and a Canadian camping and outdoor show also has booked space there. Local health-care systems and school districts have used the center’s meeting facilities, as has Harley-Davidson Motorcycles. Missouri Meetings & Events conducted a trade show at the center in March, and the mayor of St. Charles holds an annual gala there for several hundred guests. Corporations such as Boeing, Express Scripts, CCA Global Partners and Forest Pharmaceuticals also have become clients.
Sarakas and Costellia said the St. Charles facility has attracted a few groups that normally meet at the America’s Center convention complex in downtown St. Louis, but neither sees the St. Charles site cutting seriously into downtown’s convention business. America’s Center is built to handle five-figure attendee groups that St. Charles doesn’t target, so there isn’t a lot of overlap, they said.
Centered on service
Fees for the center’s spaces depend on what rooms are used and how much food and beverage service is needed, but Sarakas said her staff likes to throw in extras at no extra cost. “The difference between us and a hotel is that we’ll do complimentary signage for a meeting, around every bend,” she said. “We can personalize the signs with logos, put them on easels, even offer clients exposure on our large outdoor marquee.” Sarakas also posts meeting schedules on 12 wall-mounted flat panel screens throughout the center, and portable drinking water stations can be placed anywhere there are thirsty convention goers. Parking is generally free, with some exceptions.
The convention center’s in-house food and beverage department is easygoing and creative. Chef Dan Welsh has a host of hotel and resort experience, and can put together a sit-down dinner as easily as he can whip up boxed lunches. Sarakas said it’s possible to customize menus with quite a bit of flexibility.
Rebecca Hanson, catering manager for the center, said her staff is happy to show its stuff for meeting planners looking at booking space there. “Recently, we did a complimentary food tasting for a group of planners, to let them sample what we can do,” she said. “We have music at these tastings too, and take the opportunity to show them a variety of food options,” including special items like a chocolate fountain. Martini bars, ice sculptures and other culinary conversation pieces are available as well.
“Our general manager, Shura Lindgren, has so much energy,” Sarakas said. “She often tells me I haven’t spent enough money on extras for a client’s event. She’ll ask, ‘Did you get music for them? Did you have their logo put on the champagne glasses?’” The center’s 30 full-time and 80-plus part time employees are trained with the customer in mind, with a list of 10 service goals each strives to meet.
Costellia said the facility doesn’t yet have shuttle service to the airport, but that’s probably not far down the road. There is a shuttle available between the hotel and local attractions. The hotel offers restaurant options such as the Cyprus Grille and a coffee house called Caffeina’s; there’s also its Spa Botanica day spa to help guests relax.
Now that the St. Charles Convention Center has appeased its skeptics, Sarakas, Lindgren, marketing manager Justin Markle and their staff are moving forward with new ideas. They actively encourage employee input on team-building activities and innovative ways to serve clients. Most staff members have hotel backgrounds, so they’re well versed in helping meeting planners contrive an enjoyable event.
Costellia said the CVB recently hired a new director, David Rosenwasser, who came from Niagara Falls’ convention bureau and started in St. Charles in June. He’ll be involved in the convention center’s continued growth, helping to encourage more and different groups to try St. Charles’ new complex for their meetings.
“With a project like this, you’ll always have a few doubtful people asking, ‘Will it be successful?’” Costellia said. “Normally, these things don’t make money in their first year. But this one is. It has taken us to a new level, one we’ve wanted to be at for a long time.”
(Sarah Jamieson is the Editorial Assistant and a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.)
St. Charles Convention Center
One Convention Center Plaza
St. Charles, MO 63303