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Another Voice: Aging convention center is holding us back

By Sharon F. Cramer

In 1978, when President Jimmy Carter spent 63 cents per gallon for gasoline and “Grease” hit the movie theaters, the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center opened its doors. Many of today’s meeting planners had not yet been born. Can a 40-year-old facility realistically attract meetings and conventions?

Older than the convention center, I began attending academic conventions in 1985. At first, just going to any new city was exciting. Then, it became a regular thing — 68 national conferences, 55 state conferences, 20 in convention centers like ours.

What a difference a convenient, modern, exciting convention center made to me and my fellow convention attendees. Our enthusiasm for content grew when our technology and conference requirements were easily and affordably met. As an organizational leader, I worked with convention staff in many cities.

Surveys of our membership revealed that conference attendees wanted to feel that their travel time and money had been well invested, and that they could find interesting things to do with their free time. For a convention or meeting to be successful, participants (presenters, attendees, and vendors) need to know that their needs will be anticipated, and that there will be no difficulties.

Our facility has undergone no major updates since technology services consisted of wheeling in screens and slide projectors; it cannot excite meeting attendees. Although our convention center offers free Wi-Fi, vendors and presenters who want more than the complimentary flip charts, podiums and microphones must either bring or rent presentation equipment.

The recent report on the ability of the current convention center to meet the needs of presenters and exhibitors by consulting firm HVS Convention, Sports & Entertainment included comments about the frustrations attendees have with many aspects of the current facility. The firm concluded that a new building was essential if Buffalo is to retain and grow its position as a convention site.

As a volunteer for Visit Buffalo Niagara, I annually assist at multiple conventions at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center. Enthusiasm about restaurants, the Darwin Martin House, and Canalside is always pocked by criticisms of our outdated convention center.

With the recent prestigious Driehaus Award to the Richardson Olmsted Campus from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Buffalo is likely to go on the radar of more conference planners who want to see a transformed architectural masterpiece. But our convention center is holding us back. Even though 70 is the new 60 for people, for a convention center, age 40 is past the point of growing old gracefully.

It is time to invest in an exciting convention center that is in keeping with the thrilling options downtown Buffalo offers.

Sharon F. Cramer, Ph.D., a SUNY Distinguished Service Professor Emerita, received the Beacon Tourism Volunteer of the Year award in 2015.

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