Convention center marketing set to shift to Visitor’s Bureau

  • Justin Beiber played to a sold-out audience at the city-owned and managed Tacoma Dome earlier this year. (Photo by Bill Bungard)

  • The city-owned Pantages is operated by the Broadway Center. (Photo by Chip Van Gilder)

The big news out of the decathlon that is City Hall’s budgeting workshops is the proposed change of who will run the marketing of the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center. The city-owned facility currently has its own marketing department that is tasked with booking the 8-year-old venue. That is set to shift to a $450,000 contract with the Tacoma Regional Convention + Visitor Bureau to do that work instead. The move will mean a city staff reduction of 17 city positions out of 34 operation positions and 27 support workers under the current structure to a core of 14 operational people and occasional hires for event work during conventions. The reductions will mean a savings of $40,000. For comparison, the convention center had a high of 66 workers in 2009 as it worked to boost its convention center bookings. Refinancing of the $45 million in bond debt will draw out that loan but lower the interest rate and lower the annual payment. Details on that are in the works for a December vote. About a dozen custodial and maintenance positions will be cut for an additional savings of $1.7 million. Another six custodial positions at the Tacoma Dome will be cut for $1 million in savings. The overall budget, however, will actually go up, from $44.5 million to $46.2 million. “We ramped up staffing right before the market crashed,” Interim Public Assembly Facilities Director Ron Hanson said.

The Public Assembly Facilities Department oversees operations of the 30-year-old Tacoma Dome, which is one of the largest wood-domed structures in the world with seating configurations that can accommodate 5,000 to 23,000; the recently renovated Cheney Stadium, the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center, which offers more than 119,000 square feet of flexible event space; the 37,000-square-foot Bicentennial Pavilion; the historic Pantages Theater and Rialto Theater; as well as the 302-seat Theater on the Square. Contracts with the Rainiers baseball team covers Cheney Stadium bookings, while Broadway Center for the Performing arts covers the theater, which leaves the convention spaces and the Dome under city booking authority, and that effort has been lagging. The convention center’s main ballroom was only used 56 percent of the time, with 206 days in use, while its exhibition hall was used even less, at 44 percent or 159 days, this year. The industry benchmark is between 50 and 70 percent. The Dome averages about 85 events a year. Competition from Key Arena and other venues in the region have cut into Tacoma bookings. To battle that trend, the city has commissioned a report on tourism spending and strategies that will be presented in December. Moving forward, Hanson noted that the core staff can handle the cuts internally since a review of the events calendar showed that no additional workers are needed for 309 days out of the calendar year. The remaining 15 percent, or 56 days, when the convention center has an event can be handled through outside vendors rather than full-time city workers. “It’s the scheduling that creates the demand,” he said. “It’s not the number of events; it’s how they fall.”

The lack of events at the convention center has led to a need for $1.2 million from the General Fund this year to shore up the department’s bottom line and a projected $895,000 next year, according to city documents. Shifting the marketing efforts away from city staff and to the Tacoma Regional Convention + Visitor Bureau will enable the convention center to have three regional sales people, one national sales person and one sales representative in Washington, D.C., which is seen as a key feeder location for landing conventions for national associations. The change, which is more in line with trade standards, will allow for flexibility in trade shows and familiarization tours of the facility as well. Hanson pointed out during his presentation that the same marketing efforts would have cost the city about $700,000 a year if they were done in-house by city workers. The details of the contract are being worked out after about two years of informal discussions prompted by the recessionary cuts to city funding that have intensified with the current budget shortfall of $63 million facing the city. The presentation to the City Council marked the first green light to move forward. “Now we will begin to really iron out those details,” TRCVB President and CEO Bennish Brown. The notion of having the TRCVB market the convention center was first floated as the facility was under construction eight years ago. The lagging performance and the budget crisis sped up those talks. “I think it really never left the table,” Brown said. But now the days of having the city market the facility seem numbered.

The change comes on the heels of a shift in leadership at the city’s Public Assembly Facilities Department. City Manager T.C. Broadnax appointed Kim Bedier to the director’s post earlier this fall. Bedier has more than 20 years of experience in venue management. She was formerly the general manager of the Comcast Arena in Everett, where she oversaw a $9 million operational budget. Her first day was yesterday. "I'm extremely excited to join the City of Tacoma," said Bedier. "I look forward to collaborating with the community and its leadership to enhance the great things already happening with the public venues. I welcome the opportunity to work with the existing team to explore the potential that exists here." As the new public assembly facilities director, Bedier will oversee the Tacoma Dome; Cheney Stadium; Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center; Bicentennial Pavilion; Pantages Theater, Rialto Theater and Theater on the Square.


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