The TEE Center construction project is behind schedule, which has caused problems in booking events for the convention center expansion.
Originally set to be complete in the second quarter of next year, the Trade, Exhibit and Event Center is now scheduled to be finished by late summer, Augusta City Administrator Fred Russell said. He expects the center to open in late 2012.
The lack of a completion date has made it difficult to make bookings, said Darryl Leech, the vice president and general manager at Augusta Marriott at the Convention Center.
The TEE Center is an expansion of a city-owned conference center at the Marriott, which will run the facility. The construction project is adding 40,000 square feet of exhibit space.
“There’s a lot of interest in the center, but currently, we don’t have a definitive date on when we’re going to open,” Leech said.
“Until we get that, it’s very difficult to put somebody in as a definite. It takes a little while to ramp up this type of additional space because it’s new. You have to get some customers here to see it pretty close to completion. That’s when they want to sign on the dotted line.”
The TEE Center space, which Leech refers to officially as the Olmstead A & B Exhibit Hall, probably won’t be fully booked immediately because customers will want to know that it’s finished, he said.
“The good news is as operators we have a pretty good reputation. They know that we’ll take care of them when they come here, so that’s a plus for us,” Leech said.
Russell said the project had an “aggressive schedule” and that it’s “not uncommon to have some slippage in the schedule as a project progresses.” He cited survey issues and steel detailing that needed correction as the reasons for the delays.
“We were not able to get submittals (shop drawings) approved early on due to the fact that the survey was off, and it affected the steel dimensions,” Russell wrote in an e-mail. “We were able to keep the job moving in some areas, but the super structure steel delayed us. We did have a few weather delays early on during site work, but that didn’t really affect the schedule.”
Despite the delays, the project is still budgeted at $29.5 million, Russell said. Kitchen equipment was added to the project per the construction manager’s scope, but funds were pulled from the fixtures, furniture and equipment budget to cover the costs, he said.
GROUPS THAT HAVE expressed interest in the exhibit space include consumer shows, sporting events, large groups that couldn’t fit into the previous space at the Augusta Marriott, existing clients and schools for graduation ceremonies, Leech said.
“What we want to do is create economic impact for the community by putting lots of functions in there,” Leech said.
Barry White, the president and CEO of the Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau, agrees that “having a facility that is opened to showcase to residents and prospective clients” will make booking clients easier, though there has already been a lot of interest. The Augusta CVB is in charge of marketing and is planning a marketing campaign that will run about 12 months before the center’s opening, he said.
“Both the clients and residents will understand it more once they can actually walk in and see it, touch it and feel it,” White said. “People who plan events professionally are typically risk averse. If they’re hosting a conference for 500 people and they’re going to plan it at a facility two years from now, and the facility isn’t open yet versus one that is open, their worst nightmare would be to book something … and not be able to have it.
“Once we get further into construction and get a firm opening date, interest will grow exponentially.”
BASED ON PRACTICES at convention centers in similar-sized cities in the Southeast, Augusta appears to be on track with its marketing plan. Ideally, convention centers should start marketing six months to a year before opening, said Jimmy Holmes, the president of H Two Marketing, which handles marketing for the James H. Rainwater Conference Center in Valdosta, Ga.
The Valdosta conference center didn’t work with a professional marketing company when it opened in 2000 and got a late start on its marketing, said Mary Culbreth, the interim director.
“We didn’t start marketing our facility until we moved in it,” Culbreth said. “Usually things are a year or two out when you try to book conventions and large conferences. We should have probably started marketing ours earlier, however, we did not. We have been really busy, but it took us awhile to get started because of that.”
In hindsight, Culbreth said, they should have started marketing when they learned estimated dates that the building would be completed and opened.
The Chattanooga Convention Center in Chattanooga, Tenn., started its marketing campaign, with assistance from the city’s convention and visitors bureau, when the building was about 50 percent complete, said executive director Mike Shuford.
“Nobody’s going to book until they make sure that the building is going to be complete.” Shuford said.
The facility originally opened in April 1985, but they weren’t able to get contracts for any conventions signed until July or August, he said.
The Chattanooga Convention Center has been an asset to the city. The original facility had an average economic impact of $20 million a year. When major renovations and an expansion were completed in 2003, the economic impact doubled to $38 million to $40 million, Shuford said.