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Visit Dallas Chief Craig Davis Details Dallas' Massive Convention Center Expansion
Dallas, a city that is no stranger to massive development plans, is embarking on a $2 billion convention center expansion that will also result in a new downtown entertainment district and neighborhood.
Meetings Today's Tyler Davidson chats with Visit Dallas President & CEO Craig Davis about the details of this massive project that will reposition the city as a top meetings and conventions draw.
Listen to the episode:
Tyler Davidson: Hello, and welcome to this Meetings Today Podcast. I'm Tyler Davidson, vice president and chief content director for Meetings Today, and we are joined today by Craig Davis, president and CEO of Visit Dallas. Lots of big stuff going on in Big D, including a mammoth convention center expansion, and Craig's here to tell us all about that—and more. Thanks for joining us.
Craig Davis: Of course, Tyler, thanks for having me on.
Tyler Davidson: And so, let's start off with the big convention center expansion plan; 2.5 million square feet and a $2 billion price tag is what I saw. Why don't you tell folks about what that project entails? And I guess it's located adjacent to the current Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center?
Craig Davis: Yes. So, it's a little deceiving when you say two-and-a-half million, which is absolutely true. But by the numbers for a meeting planner, we are going to have 800,000 square feet of exhibit space, 460,000 square feet of breakout, including a 100,000-square-foot subdivisible ballroom. So, we're going to have, I think, what 85% or 90% of our conventions want.
Tyler Davidson: And so, I guess both facilities can be utilized for conventions, or multiple conventions at one time, probably.
Craig Davis: Let me get a little more deep into this. Right now, our convention center sits in an east-west rotation right at the edge of downtown, and what's going to happen is we're going to actually cap the highway that is behind the convention center as it sits right now. And we're going to start building the brand-new convention center, starting in the south, over the top of the highway. And it will actually end up by linking, again, with the Omni Hotel.
And while we're constructing our convention center—our new convention center—we're still going to actually operate our existing convention center. Until such time, as it becomes impossible to do so, then we're actually going to move into our new convention center, to half of it, and then we're going to be moving into the other half—the furthest part of our convention center to construct.
And so, it's going to be a task. But at one point in time, we're going to be operating two different convention centers. So, we're asking for a lot of patience of our customers.
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Tyler Davidson: ...and I guess you're still expecting to maybe break ground, waiting until '24, and completed in 2029.
Craig Davis: Precisely. It will start breaking ground in 2024. And that means actually capping the highway and then starting south, and it will actually have no effect at all on the convention center. But as we get closer to the convention center that exists now, that's when we're going to have some challenges in terms of how we're going to bring traffic in and out, and construction vehicles along with the tradeshow vehicles. So, we have a plan, and we're going to execute that plan.
Tyler Davidson: And then from what I can tell, in reading the description, there's going to be a lot of great ballroom space in the new facility?
Craig Davis: Right, so we're actually building this convention center to do one of two things. We're either going to make it for that large mega convention that will utilize the entire 800,000 square feet of exhibit space along with the 460,000 square feet of breakout with 100,000 square feet of ballroom space, or we'll be able to actually split it in half and have two conventions operating at the same time.
And so, we call it a two-piston engine; we may have a situation where one convention is moving into one half of it, the other one is actually operating. And then we'll get more of a constant flow of business throughout the year, rather than having the, you know, the four-day set-up and the three-day teardown. We'll minimize that by selling more conventions and perhaps the same convention size that we're having now. So, we'll have the ability to actually attract both to Dallas.
Tyler Davidson: And I think you mentioned, too, it really puts you up in the top tier of large cities that can handle the mammoth conventions.
Craig Davis: It does, and you know, there are other cities that kind of will smile when they hear this—and that's true, that, you know, Chicago has 2 million square feet and we're going to be 800,000. So, I mean, we can't compare to that, but we will be in the top tier in terms of our mix of exhibit space and breakout space.
Right now, we have 725,000 square feet of exhibit space, which fits a lot of what our customers want. But we really do lack in our breakout space.
So, this will be fixing all that, taking a quantum leap forward in terms of being able to have everything under one roof and having the much-needed breakout space that our customers have wanted and we haven't been able to provide.
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Tyler Davidson: And so, yeah, breakout space is always important. What other sort of amenities or features of the convention center will be unique? I'm always curious when people build mammoth new convention centers like this, because it really gives a window into the trends we can look forward to in the future.
Craig Davis: Yeah, and you know, I'm going to be really honest, Tyler, that we don't know what the trends are quite yet. We are actually in the process of meeting with our meeting planning community and getting their ideas of what the best-of-breed is out there. And we're going to use their direction to build this, but you can be rest assured that we're going to be looking at the trends and what's happening right now, and what they expect in the future.
I don't think conventions are going to get any smaller in the future; I think that we'll continue to be along this pace. I do think, obviously, we're going to have to take a very deep dive in terms of the technology that will be not only needed when we open up in 2029, but what we're going to need in the next, you know, 10-20 years after that. So, we get a chance to kind of rewrite this and start from scratch and build to what we think will be needed. And that's a luxury that that a building has, you know, for a short amount of time before they become obsolete.
And it's inevitable that ours will have that time, but we'll actually have a chance to take a quantum leap forward right now. So, we're still actually designing; we know what the footprint is going to look like, which is the footprint of when we say 800,000/460,000. Our customers say, “Okay, that works for me.” The devil will be in the details. And we're going to be working with them to make sure that we optimize what they need, obviously having service areas to get right to our customers, kitchen space, all the things that the best buildings have we'll be able to do that, which will be a really wonderful opportunity for Dallas.
Tyler Davidson: Well, I look forward to keeping up with the progress as it goes along. What else is going on in Dallas that planners should know about?
Craig Davis: Well, I talked extensively about the convention center itself. But another thing that's going to be coming along right beside it is an enhanced entertainment district right at the convention center. What's going to happen is—it's going to be remarkable—we have the land available to build this new convention center going south to north, and then we'll be able to actually raise the convention center as it stands right now, and then we're going to be able to redevelop the land that the convention center presently sits on. And that land will be able, and has been earmarked for, entertainment and restaurants, attractions.
Everything that we're going to build there will enhance the convention center itself. That will also include not only entertainment and restaurants, but also office space and living space, because we know that our convention customers, our visitors, want to interact with Dallas. And so, I think the reverse would be true as well.
So, we're going to actually create a brand-new neighborhood there. That is not what we have right now. So, the highway I told you about is Interstate 30, and it goes right behind the convention center. We're going to literally cap that so it becomes a natural bridge to the southern part of Dallas, and that part has already been redeveloped. And it will continue to the development as soon as that cap takes place.
So, you're not only going to see a brand-new convention center, or an expanded convention center, you're going to see a brand-new, revitalized neighborhood in that area. So, that is actually as exciting to me as the convention center, because we're going to create the next neighborhood in Dallas.
Tyler Davidson: Wow. Yeah, I have to give you credit. For being one of the biggest cities in the U.S., you really get things done. It's pretty impressive.
Craig Davis: I'll tell you, you know—and I know we're going to talk a little bit about that. You know, I've been in Dallas for two and a half years, and it blows me away that this is a can-do city. They told me that during 2008 when the rest of the country was shutting down and not doing any construction projects, Dallas developers decided to double down. And so, during the 2008 recession, they built and built and built here. So, they're not risk-averse here. They really do bring it and they are going to invest in this, and they've already started to talk about what that’s going to look like, so I'm very encouraged by what I'm seeing up to this point.
Tyler Davidson: Yeah, I've always been very impressed, because I remember even visiting Dallas back even before then, and just seeing all these giant, grand plans. And it's amazing that they really stuck with the mission and got it done.
Craig Davis: If I'm being really honest, Tyler, the city of Dallas has been on meeting planners' minds and outlook for the longest time. But because their convention center—-and I'm not going to get into it because the convention center is going away—but it is an older convention center that has been built in five different phases. The oldest part of it was built in 1957 and the newest part was built in the early 2000s. So over that course of 60-something years—almost 70—you have five different systems, you have five different engineering plants.
There's a lot of things that are behind the scenes that our customers don't see. So, the opportunity to really take this and restart and think of this all over again—now we're going to finally be able to give these customers that have wanted to use Dallas or reason to use Dallas, because they've said to us clearly, you know, we love the city, you just don't have the building that we need, especially the breakout space. So, we're going to have the opportunity to really feed those needs and ask customers what they want and serve that up to them.
Tyler Davidson: Well, great. Now, you mentioned just a little while ago that you came to Visit Dallas in January 2020, which—it always amazes me the people I talk to who get a major new position, and then the pandemic hits. What was that like? What sort of lessons did you learn? And then tell us just about your experience as someone new to Dallas and what you're enjoying about the city.
Craig Davis: So, the joke I make—and it's really true, as I grew up in Canada. Canada is the land of nice. And when I came down to Dallas, I thought nobody could be nicer than Canadians. And they blew me away.
This is a city of people that want to see newcomers succeed. So, when I first got to town, and this was pre-pandemic, I was busy trying to get my arms around the job, get my arms around the city. I didn't know a soul here. So, I had a big task ahead of me.
And as I started to meet people, they said, “You know what, you should be meeting ABC, CDE.” Now, that person and I would finish lunch with them, or coffee, I get back to my office, I look at my emails, and that person would have already sent the email to the person or the persons that they said that I should meet. They'd say, "Hey, Bill, meet Craig, I'm going to leave the two of you..."
So, they allow you into their network, which is very, very gracious of them. And I built my network here in Dallas within a few months. This isn’t typical of a big city. It's a very small town. So, once you know the players, you really know the players here. Now, I don't want to say that I know everybody, because I don't, but the people that I have met have been incredibly helpful and have become lifelong friends already.
So, my experience here, even notwithstanding with COVID, has been the best I can imagine. You know, if I was going to be in a pandemic, I'm happy to have been in a pandemic in Dallas.
Tyler Davidson: That's a great, optimistic way to look at it. And then, tell what you do for fun there, as someone who's relatively new to the city, and, you know, put your tourist hat on.
Craig Davis: So, you know, I'm here to sell Dallas, but this is really a metroplex—we call it the Metroplex. And so, there are a number of cities that are around Dallas proper, and each one of them has their own unique selling feature.
So, I love actually, in Dallas itself, one of the things that people might be surprised about is that we have the largest arts district in the country. So, everything that you want is right here within steps. So, that's my favorite thing to do.
Also, the green space here, the different parks, are abundant here. I told you about that one highway that we're going to put the cap on to build the convention center. Well, years prior they capped another highway and they built what's called Klyde Warren Park, and it is an oasis in the middle of downtown Dallas, and it has everything that children would want, families, dining and entertainment. It is a park with water fountains and a whole bunch of different things that would attract everybody from people on dates to kids and families. That is another incredible part.
And then, so, I'm also a golfer, and you can golf 12 months a year here, which is a big deal. I mean, I spent the bulk of my career in Pittsburgh and I got to golf about seven or eight months a year there. It's 12 months a year. And then I also got my private pilot's license about three or four years ago, I think four years ago. And so, I'm flying a lot here because the weather is easy to fly. And so, I'm as happy as it could possibly be.
Tyler Davidson: Excellent. Well, great. Well, thanks for joining us today. I really appreciate you making time.
Craig Davis: And I appreciate the invitation, Tyler.
Tyler Davidson: Great, and good luck with the project. And I'm sure, as you host a lot of industry events there, I'll probably be in Dallas before I know it.
Craig Davis: We'll certainly want to check back and let you know what our progress is.
Tyler Davidson: Excellent. Thank you. And that was Craig Davis, president and CEO of Visit Dallas. I'm Tyler Davidson, vice president and chief content director for Meetings Today. Thank you for joining us for this Meetings Today podcast. If you're interested in discovering more of our podcasts, just head on over to Meetingstoday.com. Check out our podcast section for a variety of podcasts with various industry thought leaders. So, thanks for joining us today, and whatever you're up to for the rest of it, go out and make it great. Thank you.
*This podcast was produced in collaboration with Visit Dallas
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