Pierre Landaiche has a monumental task ahead of him. As vice president of Memphis Management Group LLC (MMG), he is the general manager of the Cook Convention Center and Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, in charge of booking, marketing, accounting, event services, and operations.
And now, he’s got to build something new.
Plans have been in the works for some time now to overhaul the aging Cook facility. Landaiche, who calls it “a 1974 Brutalist architecture concrete box,” will oversee its transformation to a state-of-the-art, flexible center that will remind visitors at every opportunity that they’re in Memphis.
MMG is a nonprofit subsidiary of Memphis Tourism (memphistravel.com). Formerly the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Memphis Tourism was formed in 1978 to serve as the destination marketing organization for the City of Memphis and Shelby County. Kevin Kane, president and CEO of Memphis Tourism, says that this arrangement lets his organization promote itself as a one-stop shop for events and groups and conferences that want to come here.
The City of Memphis has allocated $175 million coming from the city’s hotel-motel tax and the Downtown Tourism Development Fund to give new life to the convention center. While that’s a fairly modest amount in the world of convention centers, it’s also one that the powers that be believe can do the job. “There are limits to what can be done,” Kane told Inside Memphis Business last year. “It’s not realistic to try to compete with the Nashville Music City Center, a 2.1 million-square-foot facility that opened in 2013 and, at $623 million, is the most expensive municipal-financed civic project in the state’s history.”
For one thing, while the revamped Cook will be a new facility, it will be made over in the same space and retaining some of the virtues of the existing center. It has, for example, the largest ballroom in the Mid-South at 27,000 square feet and the largest air-conditioned, covered main hall with 125,000 square-feet of column-free space.
Landaiche says the project is in the final stages of design. “The Memphis Cook Convention Center commission selected a team of architects that consists of LRK locally and their partner is a design firm out of Atlanta, Georgia, TBS Design,” he says. “TBS Design is probably the country’s leading convention center architect but they’ve done several projects around the world. They designed the Nashville Convention Center, they’re working on the Las Vegas Convention Center, they’re in the middle of designing the Javits Center in New York. We’re excited to have a team with that kind of local experience, but really the leading convention center architect in the country.”
The design is expected to be completed in September with construction starting in November after the bids come in. It’s not the first time that bids have been made, however. In March, bids came in well above the $175 million budget and Mayor Jim Strickland said the project would have to be rebid. The project team has been looking at ways to cut costs, hence the continuing work on design plans.
The new and the old will have to coexist, so construction will be done in phases. First will be the ground lobby on the ground level from about this November to late next year. Changes to the South Hall will get going next spring and that will wrap up in September or October of next year. The exhibit hall and the loading dock construction will start around October 2019 and the project is scheduled to finish in September 2020.
So what will it be?
Landaiche sums it up: “The new Cook Convention Center will be a state-of-the-art facility that has everything a twenty-first century meeting planner needs: flexibility, hotel quality, finishes, a sense of place, opportunities to go outside, natural light coming into it, the latest technology.”
And he says it will be more hospitable. “We’ve asked the design team to make sure that the convention center, when you’re in it, you have a real sense of place” he says. “You’ll know you’re in Memphis.”
It’s not really the case now. A convention center visitor could be inside and have no particular sense that he’s in the Bluff City. “But when the building is finished, you can step inside any room and have an understanding of place, because of the type of finishes, maybe the color scheme, maybe the public art that’s on the wall that you are in Memphis, the home of the blues and the birthplace of rock-and-roll.”
The ambience of the place is crucial, but even more critical is how well it gets down to business. In the 1970s, convention centers put a premium on exhibit space, but there’s less call for that now. “There’s a shift in how people are seeing products,” Landaiche says, “how people are experiencing products. With the internet it’s so easy to see a video of a tractor or see a presentation on a new medical device, so there’s less and less need to go to trade shows to see new products and new ideas. For a lot of companies they’re just cutting back on the amount of space they buy at a trade show because they’re putting more and more of their marketing and advertising dollars in other places.”
In today’s market, flexibility is the key. “More and more of these conferences and trade shows and meetings are educational based,” Landaiche says, “and there are more breakout rooms. When we get a request for a proposal for any association or any corporate meeting today, it’s all about how many breakout meeting rooms you have, what size they are, are they flexible, can they meet the audio/visual, sound, and lighting needs. And are they modern, are they comfortable, can the temperature be adjusted precisely where the client wants it to be? Those are the upgrades we’re going to see in the convention center.”
In the transformation of spaces, current exhibit halls will be converted to breakout rooms. There are 32 such rooms now and the renovation will give it 52. Those rooms provide a lot of leeway to tailor to the needs of meeting planners. Air walls will be plentiful to configure spaces as needed. The current South Hall exhibit space will become changeable to up to 10 breakout rooms.
But there remains a need for exhibit space and the exhibit hall will upgrade the floor boxes and lighting. More natural light will be in the hall as well. Additionally, load-ins will be improved. “We currently have two docks, but on two levels below the hall,” Landaiche says. “This is an elevated space which allows it to be column free, a huge asset for us, very attractive to meeting planners and trade show producers around the country. However, it’s very difficult for them to load in their shows or their meetings or their trade shows into this particular hall.”
The problem is, again, that time has passed the convention center by. Landaiche says there are two ways to get up to the hall: an 85,000-pound truck that doesn’t always work, and a ramp built in 1974 when trucks weren’t as large or long as they are today. Those limitations require a complete reconfiguration of the loading dock layout with a new ramp as well as four loading docks on the same level as the exhibit hall rather than two levels below. “What that will mean to a trade show organizer,” he says, “is that it’s going to ease access, cut the time to load in the show, and save on expenses. It’s a huge selling point for us and it’s going to open up a whole other market for us to go after new trade shows and conventions.”
Technology is driving many of the changes that will be implemented.
“We’re not using overhead projectors anymore,” he says. “We’re using large screens with ceiling-mounted projectors that drop down. Because of the size of the screens and the size of the technology, ceiling heights are getting larger; it’s more open air, it feels better. So we will increase ceiling heights. We’re currently dealing with the bulk of our meeting rooms being eight- to nine-foot-tall ceilings.”
One of the things the current building has — or doesn’t have — is an appreciation of the Mississippi River. That’s going to change. “We’re going to experience the outside,” Landaiche says, “to have views of the river, our greatest asset. We’re expanding that, allowing more natural light into the space. We’re blowing out walls on the west side and creating new concourses to provide new pre-function areas for our guests and receptions or registration. The idea is we’re taking advantage even more of the river views that we have.” And there’s a particularly unattractive stretch of Front Street that goes underneath the convention center and its forbidding design. Even that will get a facelift. “It’s an outdoor space with columns now but we’re converting it to five additional meeting rooms overlooking the river,” he says.
Landaiche says the parking garage will not be expanded, but that it will be improved. “There will be more light; we’re going to add sound, the Memphis sound to the garage,” he says. “It’s due for a paint up, fix up, new stripes, new signage, better feel, more secure. We’re going to improve the 1,000 spaces we have currently in the garage.”
The size of the parking area has generally been adequate. Some shows have sold out the garage, but there are enough spaces that some city and county employees can use it.
The Cannon Center
The performing arts auditorium, built in 2003, remains a solid facility that looks and sounds good and makes the Memphis Symphony Orchestra happy. It will remain open during the convention center’s rebuild, Landaiche says, and will get some slight improvements. “We’re shifting a lot of events to the Cannon Center that otherwise would have had to happen at the convention center,” he says. “It’s proving to be a huge asset for us during the project.”
The 600-room Sheraton next door is the convention center’s headquarters hotel, but, Landaiche says, more full-service hotels within walking distance are needed. Another 500- to 600-room property close by would greatly help in marketing.
“What a new full-service hotel does for this building is it allows us to put a group of 1,500 to 2,000 in really just a couple of properties rather than 12,” he says. “We’ve got some groups that continue to meet in the convention center in Memphis despite having to put 2,000 people in 12 to 15 hotels. There are other groups around the country that we want and that we’re going to go after but they tell us their minimum is two or three hotels for their attendees.”
The Local Market
If the changes will be well-received by meeting planners, they should also appeal to more local organizations. “It’s going to be a meeting and community center for the entire Mid-South,” Landaiche says. “We’re going to make sure we open the building to the community and the neighborhoods and drive more investment in not just the downtown area, but we think in the whole region.”
He envisions the potential of more boat shows, RV shows, comic cons, bridal shows, and the like. There could also be community events hosted by the convention center to expose the building to the city.
When the new Cook facility is completed, Landaiche says, new markets will become available. The footprint stays the same but the space will be significantly improved. “There are highly rated meetings, trade shows, and conventions that have a certain standard that we currently don’t meet. There are Memphis-based companies that tell us, ‘We would love to stay in town, we would love to be in our hometown, but we can’t because our attendees expect a better experience.’ They go to Orlando or New Orleans or Nashville or Charlotte.” He says Memphis will be able to compete more effectively when it can pitch to some of the larger associations and Fortune 500 companies.