Raleigh Convention Center expansion plans aimed at drawing bigger events

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Tuesday, February 21, 2023
Raleigh Convention Center proposed expansion
Raleigh Convention Center expansion plans aims for bigger events

Raleigh Convention Center leadership presented plans of its proposed expansion to the Wake County Board of Commissioners, as they work to attract more events to the city.

"There's a lot of events we can't even start the conversation with because they're national and they just require too much footage. Equally, we have the same conversation with too many hotel rooms. We might get the business and squeeze it in and convince them to find a way to fit. But if they don't have anywhere to sleep for their people, then that doesn't work either," said General Manager Kerry Painter.

The proposal calls for an additional 500,000 square feet of meeting space, including 50,000 and 30,000 square foot flex halls. Those moves would increase capacity by 20,000 people, doubling current rates.

"We need more space for line control. We need more space for more vendors if we want to bring in bigger you know, national brands or bigger activations, we need the space for that. We're extremely limited with the 150,000 square feet that they currently have in the exhibition hall," said Michael Broder, President of GalaxyCon.

The annual festival, which has been held in Raleigh since 2017, attracts thousands of people each year, with Broder saying they often sell out Saturday showcases and are forced to turn people away.

"(Raleigh) is our largest event. We run events all across the country. It's our smallest building," Broder said.

Expanding the venue space is just one part of enticing event organizers to choose Raleigh; addressing hotel capacity shortages is another challenge. According to the Raleigh Convention Center, between 2018-2020, 45% of their lost business was due to lack of hotel inventory. There are just 929 supporting walkable hotel rooms to the RCC, a figure less than 1/4 of what's available in Nashville and Austin.

"They're a little bit farther ahead of us as far as corporate development. So you really need things like this stadium series. You really need big events, you need investment in the convention center, you need investment in other things that are bringing tourist dollars to the market," said Russ Jones, President of LODEN Hospitality, which owns hotels in the area, including The Longleaf Hotel and Lounge in downtown Raleigh.

"There's not a lot of downtown hotels right now. You're really working with the Marriott, the Sheraton and the Residence Inn - good, great properties. And the people who work there are phenomenal. We sell those out, there's sold out. OK, so now they're sold out. Now people have to book hotels further and further out. So we're booking hotels that are 15, 20 minutes away and that's fine. It's great for those hotels, but for the people coming in, they really want to be able to just walk across the street to the Convention Center," said Broder.

Painter pointed to ongoing efforts to increase lodging options.

"There is a (Convention Hotel Request for Interest) out, so we are already in the phase where we're analyzing the submissions, and the space would be right in front of the performing arts center, right across the street. Those flat lots will become a 40 story hotel and 500 rooms.

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As part of the proposed expansion, Red Hat Amphitheatre would need to be relocated in order to create a two-square-block site.

"We're going to build a new (amphitheatre), and we'll be able to do that because it is half a block over," said Painter, adding they will do the work in the offseason to avoid missing any dates.

The proposed project would cost $425 million, requesting money from the Interlocal Fund, a collection of hospitality taxes jointly managed by the Wake County Board of Commissioners and Raleigh City Council.

"We look forward to more events at the Convention Center and absolutely support expansion. And the presentation was just that. It was for informational reasons, informational purposes, but we were impressed with what they showed us," said Shinica Thomas, Wake County Board Chair.

The next vote on how to allocate those funds is scheduled for June 20th.

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