CVB leader says more changes needed at Fort Worth Convention Center

A $150,000 study of the Fort Worth Convention Center, to be completed this spring, is likely to recommend changes and investments to help the city attract bigger meetings and conferences, the consultant leading the study said Wednesday.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the Fort Worth Convention & Visitors Bureau, Rob Hunden, president of Chicago-based Hunden Strategic Partners, said Fort Worth is still missing out on some big conventions because the city doesn’t have enough meeting space and hotel rooms.

“The total product has improved in the last decade and downtown is much more vibrant, but there’s still opportunity,” Hunden said, referring to the convention center’s expansion a decade ago. “We’re looking at all kinds of things throughout this study. As this goes forward, we will be making recommendations for some investments.”

Bob Jameson, the CVB’s president and chief executive officer, told the gathering that now is the time to make additional changes at the convention center, including the 45-year-old round arena on its north end. The arena doesn’t serve the purpose it once did when the convention center opened, Jameson said, and the space sits empty and unused on most days.

“We all feel that buzz of opportunity,” Jameson said. “I believe this is Fort Worth’s time. We are turning away some amount of convention activity because of space limitations at our facility and in downtown hotels. That is valuable real estate and that is a third of the building that needs to have some attention given to how it can best serve the city.”

Fort Worth is attracting a more professional type of convention and new groups, the bureau said. In 2015 and 2016, it will host the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships and in 2017 it will host the International Geoscience and Remote Sensing Symposium, a technology convention that will draw 1,500 attendees.

Moreover, 6.5 million people visited Fort Worth in 2013, 1 million more than in 2008, according the bureau.

Ten years ago, the city completed a $75 million expansion to the convention center, but the 10,000-seat arena, built in 1968, was left untouched. The city bought the convention center in 1997 from Tarrant County. It has since doubled in size and become a more desirable destination for conventions.

The arena has long been the annual location for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and has hosted high school graduations, concerts and hockey games over the years. Last fall, the Dallas Stars scrimmaged there.

But the city has attracted bigger meetings since the convention center was expanded and the Omni Fort Worth hotel opened across the street five years ago. Other downtown hotels have also been upgraded.

Jameson said travel industry reports show improved consumer confidence and a desire for people to travel again after the industry suffered in the recession.

“We had a very busy year,” he said. “Trends are pointing up and the outlook is great. The national travel industry is producing job growth that is outpacing the rest of the economy.”

In other business, Jameson said the bureau will focus on marketing efforts and is in the process of finding a New York-based public relations firm to boost awareness about Fort Worth nationwide. Interviews with firms will be done next week, he said.

Also, the bureau will be working with the Fort Worth advertising and marketing firm Concussion on its brand awareness.

“Great cities never stand still and Fort Worth has really done a great job of not standing still,” said Mayor Betsy Price. “Let’s continue to bring visitors here. Let’s continue to bring conventions here. We really do generate a lot of excitement and that translates to dollars back here.”

The convention center typically hosts about 400 events annually, including 40 to 50 conventions. Fort Worth has about 13,000 hotels room, of which about 2,700 are downtown.