The Cannon Center for the Performing Arts — and the expansion of the Cook Convention Center — was one of the most challenging construction projects in recent years. Plagued by missed deadlines, cost overruns, and lawsuits, the expansion was finally completed about four years ago.
But Pierre Landaiche III, the Cook Convention Center's general manager since 1996, says the story has a happy ending. So happy, in fact, that the convention center board has even brought up the idea of adding more space.
"Memphis is a hot destination right now. No one else will ever claim Elvis or Beale Street," Landaiche told a group from the local Public Relations Society of America last week. "We just have to meet the need."
To be a successful meeting destination — and share in the hundred billion dollar convention industry — a city needs hotel rooms, attractions, transportation, and meeting facilities. Before 1995, Memphis had three of the four. What it lacked was meeting facilities.
"Generally, we heard, 'Your building needs to be updated,'" Landaiche said. "'You need more meeting rooms.'"
Though Landaiche said it was easy to justify the project by the time it was completed, the public didn't always see it that way.
"The general consensus was that it was the worst public project ever done in the city of Memphis," Landaiche said.
The convention center is funded with the hotel/motel occupancy tax. During the expansion, the convention center added a 28,000-square-foot ballroom, as well as 10 smaller meeting rooms and the Cannon Center auditorium.
"The Cannon Center is arguably one of the top five theater venues in the country, especially when it comes to acoustics," Landaiche said. "Compared to other facilities around the country, we got a bargain."
Miami's new Carnival Center — which includes a concert hall and opera house — cost about $473 million. A new symphony center is being erected in Atlanta for $300 million. Nashville's 1,900-seat Schermerhorn Symphony Center cost $120 million (The Cannon Center seats 2,100.)
"We paid $60 million and that was only four years ago," Landaiche said. "It's paying off."
Since the project — which cost $106.5 million in construction and additional settlement fees — the convention center's annual revenue has almost doubled from $1.3 million before the expansion to $2.5 million afterward. Before the renovation, the center saw about 12 national conventions a year and now it's almost triple that. That means an additional 200,000 people through the doors each year, and roughly 95,000 hotel-room nights each year generated just from convention center and Cannon Center events.
Landaiche estimates the conventions mean a $70 million economic impact for the city. But even with the investments paying off and revenue up, the convention center still runs at a $2 million deficit each year.
"We can't charge enough for our product to break even," Landaiche said. "Places like Phoenix and Ft. Lauderdale are giving their convention space away."
The convention industry is notoriously competitive.Washington, D.C.'s convention center expects to have a $22 million deficit this year. And it's surely bracing itself for next April when the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center — created by the company behind Nashville's Gaylord Opryland resort — opens with 2,000 rooms and 470,000 square feet of convention space in nearby Maryland.
Memphis is not only competing with similar size cities such as Birmingham, but with industry leader Las Vegas, as well. And with a possible expansion in the works for the six-year-old DeSoto Civic Center, Memphis may get more competition closer to home.
Generally, convention-center renovations and expansion happen in 10-year cycles.
"Because of the level of activity we've had at the Cook Convention Center, the board along with the convention bureau and the hotel community are beginning to look at a long-range convention plan to start talking about the need for an expanded facility," Landaiche said. "It's basically, how do we address the meeting planners' needs in the future?"
The talk is still just that — talk — but any expansion would be predicated on a needs analysis for events that are currently too large for Memphis but are interested in coming here.
Said Landaiche: "A $2 million deficit at the end of the day for $70 million [of economic impact], it's not a bad investment."