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Convention Center looks to expand with increasing demand

Hospitality and Tourism
Travis Boland
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Since its opening in 2004, the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center has become the centerpiece in the revitalization of downtown Columbia, center officials said.

The estimated economic impact from the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center on the local economy is close to $120 million, and with 80% repeat business, it has become the go-to place for events in the Capital City. Center officials are hoping to add even more impact with improvements and a possible expansion.

The Columbia Metropolitan Center is looking for ways to expand. (Photo/Provided)“Based on client satisfaction surveys, our clients get an excellent experience,” said Cheryl Swanson, the Convention Center’s vice president and general manager. “They continually rate our services, staff and food in the excellent range and call out specific staff members for their exceptional service.”

Swanson is just three weeks into the GM position, but had the chance to visit Columbia as an attendee of a conference at the Convention Center. She said she was impressed not only with the facility, but also the vibrancy of Columbia.

Sarah Britt, director of sales, has been with the Convention Center for six years, and marvels at the amount of change she has seen in Columbia.

“Being right in the middle of downtown, we’re helping create that growth that brings in so many dollars from around the state and nation,” Britt said. “This place fuels the growth of everything else in Columbia.”

There are a number of amenities businesses look for when deciding where to have their conference. Swanson said space is usually the first question brought up with a potential client.

“People want to know the size of the facility, and whether or not we have the room for what they need,” Swanson said. “We’re able to transition the facility many different ways to accommodate whatever the client may need. One weekend we may need to put down carpeting and have lighting to create a ballroom, and the next we can have a home show that has a number of exhibits on the concrete.”

Other amenities include ease of booking, vibrancy of the community, accessibility and quality of food. Britt said the Convention Center has fine food and beverage quality thanks to an array of menus.

“Our chef comes from the high-end hotel world, and customizes 80% of what the client may want for their meals,” Britt said. “Nobody wants the same old chicken dish every year. We provide a full, unique, high-end factor for the client.”

Technology has also become a greater need for clients. Britt said most attendees have an average of two electronic devices and bandwidth is often questioned.

“We have been fortunate to stay ahead of the curve, and have been able to accommodate any tech group’s needs with even more connectivity,” she said. 

Space continues to be a drawback for the Convention Center. Britt said the center turned down nine events in the last year because it didn’t have adequate space, resulting in an estimated loss of $2.5 million in economic impact for the city.

“Those are just the events that we can submit a proposal for, not even the ones we couldn’t bid on,” Britt said. “Many of those are corporate meetings with big trade shows or associations attached. We are limited in our exhibit hall space, and those have larger general sessions. The largest (crowd) we can accommodate right now is 2,100.”

Britt said the Convention Center has tried to partner with the University of South Carolina Alumni Center or the Colonial Life Arena, but it’s harder to compete against a center that can keep everything under one roof.

Swanson said center officials have identified the need for improved amenities and services in the executive board room to accommodate more technology, and plans are in place to begin construction in the fall. The center is also in the process of expanding and adding glass meeting rooms on the second floor. There will be four rooms in total, which can be adjusted to two larger rooms.

With proposed expansion comes the need for a possible on-site hotel that Swanson said would be imperative to the growth of the Convention Center. Currently, there are 1,480 hotel rooms within one mile of the Convention Center, with 222 next door at the Hilton Columbia Center.

“Certainly with an expansion, there would be the need for a hotel,” Britt said. “It’s hard to convince a group to split their hotel lot between six properties, where in another city there could be one. Expansion could allow us to service the bigger groups.”

Two years ago, the Convention Center set a record for the most space booked in a year, then last year topped that figure. Britt is hoping with expansion the center can once again raise the bar.

“We’re the engine for growth in Columbia, and we want to make everything else in Columbia successful,” Britt said. “We hope we can one day have the infrastructure that allows us to continue to grow and be that economic catalyst for the city.”

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