The Top 4 Reasons Why Convention Centers Struggle to Compete


By Phil Bruno

If tourism is what drives economic development, convention centers are the engine. And in the race for visitor dollars, it’s the best maintained engines that will finish first. 

What makes convention centers such economic engines? Not only do they bring visitors (and hence, money) to local restaurants, lounges, and local attractions, they also justify increased spending on things like public safety and infrastructure. More importantly, convention centers (and the businesses around them) give people a “first taste” of a city. Convention goers will often book additional nights before or after the convention to combine some personal time with their convention travel; such pre- and post-convention travel can determine whether someone is a repeat visitor, or even considers a relocation, to the city.

And just like car engines, convention centers come in different sizes for different purposes—but an engine of any size will struggle if not properly tuned and maintained. Consider: A formula one engine might be designed to be one of the fastest moving engines on land, but if it’s not properly lubed, balanced, and cared for, it will never achieve those speeds…it might not work at all. In the same way, the size and budget of a convention center will not matter if that convention center has not been maintained for maximum performance.

In fact, there are some clear “red flags” that a convention center is struggling to perform:

  1. Dwindling bookings
  2. Poor feedback from multiple customers/visitors
  3. Low ranking in industry listings
  4. Revenue and profitability reports sinking into the red

Being picked to host the best events is itself a race, and only the top performers will win out. If your convention center is consistently near the rear of the pack, it’s time to do what any good driver would do: Hire a mechanic to diagnose the problem.

For example, I have found that there are four issues that seem to be endemic to almost all convention centers that are struggling: Complicated processes for suppliers, disappointing pre- and post-convention stays, lack of perceived value, and poor employee training.

Reason #1: Internal Process Are Too Complicated for Suppliers, Booths

The financial success of any convention hinges on the booth space (floor space) sold. Also known as the show floor, vendors, for their part, have to coordinate (and pay for) many things: The space itself, equipment, transportation/freight, electrical, internet, and so on. The more complicated these things become, the more time and effort they take—and both time and effort are precious commodities.

To sustain good vendor attendance, the convention center needs to eliminate as much of this sacrifice as possible. Look at these processes through the vendor’s eyes, asking “What do I, a vendor, have to go through in order to get what we need?”

Don’t overlook how much this time sacrifice affects vendor attendance. Even if having a booth at the convention center has a proven ROI, a vendor will think twice about making that investment if their past experience was too stressful or complicated. 

Reason #2: Disappointing Pre- or Post-Convention Stays

Often, a convention attendee will extend their stay by a few nights to see what the city has to offer or take vacation time with family. This not only lengthens their stay, but also pours more money into the local economy. On the other hand, attendees will cancel their extended stay (or even shorten their stay) if their experience is a poor one.

The same goes for the “fan tour,” when convention planners are first shopping sites. They will ask the same questions an attendee would ask: How well are we treated? What are good local spots for off-site meetings? What are fun things to see and do while we are here? Let’s face it: No one will pick a convention center if these questions cannot be answered in a positive way.

If the experience outside the official convention itself is sub-par, the convention center will struggle.

Reason #3: The Value Isn’t There—Yet

Many convention planners, vendors, and attendees will complain that a given convention center is too expensive. But what they really mean is that the center is too expensive for what people get. In other words, the price of booking, lodging, or hosting a booth is too high compared to the type of experience people have with the center.

High prices and disappointing experiences can happen for many reasons. Maybe there hasn’t been a call for contractor bids in a long time, and so contractors and unions have gotten used to charging premium prices without consequences. Maybe the center is trying to make up for lost revenue by overcharging services, such as internet. Or, maybe, convention goers are quietly telling their associations “please don’t book that dump again,” and planners are finding better deals elsewhere—and the word spreads quickly among convention planners.

Whatever the cause, it is worth drilling down and finding out why there is a mismatch between costs and perceived value.

Reason #4: Poor Employee Training

From experience, I can tell you one of the most common—and most easily fixed—causes of a mismatch between convention center costs and the value of the experience: Interaction with employees.

If convention center employees are knowledgeable and friendly, that goes a long way to making guests and vendors alike feel welcome. It also reduces the friction and stress that comes with conventions. Remember: People are in an unfamiliar city, away from friends and family, trying to navigate where to eat, when to rest, and who to see. It’s all the stress of a family vacation combined with all the seriousness of the workplace. A single helping hand can make all the difference between a positive visitor experience and a stressful, disastrous one.

Fine-Tuning the Engine

From experience, I would say that 90% of the reason convention centers struggle is that one or more of the above is true yet never addressed. In short, vendors have a rough time, attendees have a poor experience, and planners just don’t see any value for the price tag.

The good news is that all of the above issues can be addressed. Just as a good mechanic can get a good engine up and running at maximum performance, a good “convention center mechanic” can get a convention center performing better and beating its peers to attract lucrative contracts.

The first step is diagnosis. For a mechanic, this means taking in information: Feeling how the car handles, listening to the squeaks and noises, detecting a whiff of burning rubber. For a convention center, we start with our own discovery process. The goal of that process is to get to know the perspectives of all stakeholders, including the staff. Once that is done, the way forward”fix” becomes much more apparent. Oftentimes, the solution includes better processes, better training, and good peer-to-peer coaching.

If your convention center is seeing any red flags, then it’s time to get a proper diagnosis—only then can you get a roadmap leading to better performance in the future. As a first step, you can reach out to have me run a discovery process for you.

In any race, there is a mountain of difference between the top three places, and the rest of the pack. The same is true when it comes to convention centers. Don’t let mediocrity hold back your center and your city.


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