Convention Center Design: Evolving Spaces for Evolving Needs

November 9, 2012 / Michael Lockwood

Convention center design has evolved significantly over the past ten years, impacted by changing economic conditions and the evolving expectations of meeting planners, building operators and convention attendees. The industry has been faced with significant challenges – the recession resulted in fewer people attending fewer events annually, impacting many cities’ and associated hotels and restaurants that depend on conventions to generate revenue. Despite the challenges, the industry remains a vital economic keystone as city leaders recognize the importance of a quality convention center in drawing large-scale conferences and ultimately, national attention, to their city.

At Populous, we believe the positive state of the industry is a reflection of the adaptations it has undergone. Fewer clients are simply asking for “more space” and instead, we’re being asked to design more unique spaces that provide a better, more memorable customer experience for visitors. This has led us to reimagine all aspects of convention center design – from better urban planning to ensure the facility fits well with its urban context and provides more opportunities for quality indoor/outdoor space, to hospitality level interior design that ensures the guests’ experience is equal to or better than the hotel environments that surround centers.  In supplementing contiguous exhibition halls with unique breakout meeting spaces, functional outdoor areas, high quality ballrooms and other multi-purpose spaces that allow facilities to accommodate a wider variety of events, the evolution of convention center design is providing the flexibility needed to broaden the marketability of these facilities in challenging economic times.

Perhaps the most interesting of these convention center design trends is the growing desire for functional outdoor space. For years, convention centers have adhered to the “black box” model – functional spaces that are void of natural light and therefore any genuine architectural connection to the city they reside in.  We are now not only designing more meeting rooms and exhibit halls that incorporate natural light and exterior views, but we are also blurring the lines between the interior and exterior of the building – allowing meeting planners the ability to program outdoor space as part of their event.  Convention centers are often located in urban centers and these outdoor spaces provide visitors a more direct physical and visual connection to the city. In addition, cities as varied as Phoenix, Arizona, Provo, Utah and San Jose, California are incorporating functional outdoor spaces throughout to provide visitors a space for more intimate socializing and an opportunity to break away from the conference momentarily to enjoy the city. An outdoor meeting space or functional plaza can provide another unique outdoor experience that attracts convention or exhibition attendees and provides them with a welcome break from the indoor exhibition space. As convention center space becomes more multi-use, these outdoor spaces also provide a selling point for convention center executives looking to rent space for private parties or corporate events, making them a viable alternative to other event spaces in a city.

Ultimately, convention center spaces that reflect the city’s culture and sense of community result in a more authentic experience for visitors. Gone are the days of walking into a convention center and feeling that you could be in any city in the world. These modern spaces are unique and offer visitors a taste of the place they have traveled to, whether that be San Jose or Sydney.

Meet the author

Michael Lockwood

Senior Principal / San Francisco


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