CMW visited various fledgling conference centres on its recent tour of the USA, and Fort Lauderdale’s Broward County Convention Center stood out as an exemplary success story, and one that has helped prompt a thriving MICE scene.
Located between the popular port of Fort Lauderdale and the rapidly expanding Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL), the convention centre was built to attract a new crowd to the destination, and embrace MICE business during tourism down periods.
The centre was a key part of the transformation of Fort Lauderdale in the late 80s. Back then the destination was synonymous with Spring Break vacations and low yield tourism.
“Fort Lauderdale’s community got together and decided that they wanted to be, and were, about more than just partying. To achieve this they realised they needed to target more than just six weeks of the year during the holidays when people don’t spend much and seek cheap rooms,” says Christine Roberts-Tascione, VP, convention sales & services at Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The community realised if they wanted it, they had to build it themselves and a plan was drawn up to help broaden the scope of the area.
“The county agreed to go ahead with the community’s plan, and a bed tax was levied on tourists at 5%. Around 2% of this goes to the BB&T Center arena which seats 19,000 visitors. The tourism marketing gets a cut, and the convention center also takes a cut to create better demand from May to November predominantly. The aim was to keep the community employed throughout the year and create a flourishing and diverse tourism scene,” Roberts-Tascione adds.
Since opening in 1991, the 55,742sqm convention centre has hosted more than five million guests and 5,500 events.
The local hotel scene is boosted by the events scene. The Riverside Hotel’s spokesperson says: “There’s a number of very powerful organisations here but they are all very united. We have the biggest ships in the world passing by our hotel. As a boutique property, fewer people can take over our hotel during conventions, and there’s often the jetset crew here, the beautiful people.”
This buoyant atmosphere has prompted growth plans for the convention centre. “There’s been an empty lot here which for 25 years has been sought for additional expansion. However, in April 2016 a 27,870sqm expansion was approved for 2020 on the back of one of our best July’s ever, when we were running at 95% capacity,” says the centre’s sales manager Andres Castano.
“Fort Lauderdale has been a success for events because it manages to appeal to everyone involved. Organisers are happy being somewhere accessible, the costs locally are reasonable and it is an attractive place for attendees to visit. As a result we had one of our most successful years in 2015 from occupancy to delegate attendance,” he adds.
An onsite hotel is among the most recently announced plans, and set to open in 2021. Shortly after these initiatives were announced, two incidents tested Fort Lauderdale’s expertise in handling disasters. Hurricane Matthew, which struck in October 2016, caused more than 842 deaths in nearby Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Fortunately Fort Lauderdale avoided the brunt of the storm, but South Florida reported more than 4,500 flight cancellations and the closing of major cruise ports.
In January this year, meanwhile, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, was the site of a terrorist attack when a gunman killed five travellers.
The destination however, says it will not let these incidents affect its ascent. The airport was able to resume operations and flight schedules the following morning and its pipeline remains ambitious.
The launch of Emirates Airlines’ daily non-stop service to Dubai marked two years of unprecedented growth at the airport with JetBlue Airlines adding links to Cuba and Mexico, and a Norwegian Air Shuttle to Paris and the West Indies.
Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau president and CEO Stacy Ritter says the strategy by the airport and Broward County aims to put Fort Lauderdale among the top destinations in the USA for international visitors, which will only boost its burgeoning MICE industry.
Officials from the Seatrade Cruise Global conference, scheduled for 13-16 March at the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center, said the shootings didn’t appear to have had any immediate impact on conference registrations. Numerous other MICE events also affirmed their continued support for the destination.
In the testing times we live in, Fort Lauderdale’s MICE industry is shining in a manner befitting its sunny exterior.