Proof that Convention Centers Work: San Diego

San Diego Convention CenterFittingly enough, the San Diego Convention Center, in its luminous setting on the sparkling San Diego Bay, has been called an “anchor and a catalyst” for the continuing growth that's sprung up around the California city's waterfront since its opening in 1989.

"We're fortunate in that San Diego has always been a great meeting town,” says Joe Terzi, president and CEO of the San Diego CVB. Cvent recently ranked San Diego as one of the Top 10 meeting destinations in the U.S.

Downtown San Diego, 1980But there's no question that the convention center and its expansion in 2001 upped the game. “It remade the downtown skyline and the downtown business environment, ” says Terzi. As an example, the historic 16-block Gaslamp Quarter district – now the epicenter of downtown nightlife, dining, festivals, and special events – was basically just a street. Tom Mazzocco, executive vice president and COO of the San Diego Convention Center Corporation, which operates and manages the center while contracting with the CVB for long term sales, agrees: “There wasn't much going on downtown prior to 1989. It was law offices and banks.” (Photo left: Downtown San Diego, 1980) 

Gaslamp Quarter Buildings, San DiegoThe center also spurred three convention hotels: the 1,600-room Grand Hyatt San Diego, the 1,300-room Marriott Marquis & Marina, and the 1,200-room Hilton San Diego Bayfront, along with a building boom in retail, arts and cultural institutions, and tourist attractions. “That's a great selling package for us,” says Terzi. “If you think about it, everything has improved since the convention center, and now we're going into a second expansion that we're planning to open in 2016.

The $520-million, second expansion will also help to attract and retain convention clients that want to meet in San Diego, but can't, according to Mazzocco: “We had a couple of clients who outgrew us. Then there were medium-sized clients that we could have brought in as stacked groups, but we didn't have the space.”

San Diego Convention Center expansion, artist's renderingThe planned expansion will likely fix that, with the addition of an 80,000-square-foot “true ballroom,” 110,000 square feet of meeting space, and 220,000 square feet of exhibit space for a total of “over 750,000 square feet of one contiguous exhibit space, the largest on the west coast,” says Terzi. (Photo left: Artist's rendering of finished expansion)

But not all has been smooth sailing. Despite the San Diego city council approving the expansion financing plan on October 1, the plan has its critics. Dissenters say, among other things, that the public was denied a vote on how to spend the tax increase generated by hotels. Backers insist that the expansion is essential to San Diego's economy. The heated debate will no doubt continue, but in the meantime the plan's supporters – which include Mayor Jerry Sanders, most of the city council, and hoteliers – look forward to staying on schedule despite the upcoming legal hurdles.

"The mayor will be the first to tell you that the most important thing to us in San Diego is to make sure that the convention center gets expanded and the tourism industry is healthy,” says Terzi. Based on past successes, he believes those are the keys to a bright future. “The economic growth and the development of San Diego can be traced right back to the tourism industry and specifically the convention center. It re-created downtown into a major economic engine for San Diego.”

Photos: San Diego Convention Center Corp. (Downtown Gaslamp Buildings photo: Courtesy Joanne DiBona, sandiego.org)

For more on meeting venues in San Diego, go to the Cvent Destination Guide To learn more about how convention centers affect city planning read Proof That Convention Centers Work: Houston.

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