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BUSINESS BOOMING: Angie Teel, general manager of the Branson Convention Center, says the facility has something happening on 85% of days of the year, on average.
Tawnie Wilson | SBJ
BUSINESS BOOMING: Angie Teel, general manager of the Branson Convention Center, says the facility has something happening on 85% of days of the year, on average.

A Tale of Two Convention Centers: Officials say Branson’s convention picture is bright, but Springfield’s needs work

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Last edited 1:35 p.m., March 4, 2024 [Editor's note: Mark Hecquet of the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc. clarified his statements after publication that his concern with the city's convention center spaces is the size and not the condition.]

For national organizations and industries looking to host a convention in a central location, a look at the map suggests southwest Missouri as an option.

The city of Branson has been able to capitalize on its geographical advantage, with the Branson Convention Center bringing in 145 events and more than 226,000 people in 2023, according to General Manager Angie Teel.

Teel, who crunched the numbers with the Branson/Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau Inc. officials, said the Branson Convention Center’s estimated economic impact in 2023 was $57.5 million.

Teel attributed the success of the center to three factors: location, location and location.

“We’re right in the heart of the Midwest, close to Oklahoma, Arkansas, southwest Missouri,” she said. “That definitely bodes well for us.”

Teel said an expansion of the facility is under discussion, though officials are not ready to release details.

Springfield may have a few advantages for convention planners that Branson does not – like an interstate running through it and an airport with 13 nonstop destinations, including five of the nation’s largest hubs. However, economic impact and operations stats aren’t available from the University Plaza Hotel & Convention Center and Springfield Expo Center, which is owned and managed by Georgia-based Atrium Hospitality LP. Atrium officials declined to comment for this story.

The convention picture in the Queen City is a bleak one, according to Mark Hecquet, president and CEO of the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc. since January 2023.

Hecquet said he’s noted the strengths in the community during his time in the role, in addition to where opportunities lie. He said the lack of a large-scale convention center facility is "glaringly obvious."

Hecquet isn’t the first CVB director to make this observation. His predecessor, Tracy Kimberlin, appeared before Springfield City Council in June 2022 with strong words about the state of the city’s convention facilities – something he characterized as “a major problem” for Springfield.

Kimberlin said the University Plaza convention hotel was in sad shape, with guests reporting leaky roofs, broken air conditioning and lack of hot water.

He also reported that the city’s 112,000-square-foot Expo Center needed work.

Hecquet said the lack of a large-scale convention center in the city is undeniable – as are the losses the city suffers as a result.

“In Branson, their convention center’s doing really well,” he said.

He added that Jefferson City is looking to build a convention center. In October 2023, capital city officials announced a downtown revitalization plan involving a convention center, hotel and parking garage, according to a report in the city’s News Tribune newspaper.

He said the CVB sales team scours the country to find prospective business for the city, yet much of this is turned away because Springfield lacks a large-scale facility for conventions.

“There’s an untapped market,” he said. “There is a tremendous amount of business that we cannot bid on or that we lose because of our facilities.”

Hecquet said the advantage to the city of hosting conventions comes through in ways beyond just convention center revenue.

“They bring in people that will then visit restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, so Monday night in downtown is now a busy place,” he said. “That’s the story. It’s not just a convention center; it can bring economic benefits to the community.”

A midlevel priority
Springfield City Manager Jason Gage said the city’s position regarding the need to repair and upgrade the University Plaza convention center remains, though most communication since Kimberlin’s visit has occurred with its local management. The current general manager is Brent Parker, who did not respond to requests for comment. Nathan Wood, area director of sales and marketing, said he passed along SBJ’s request for comment to higher-level management.

University Plaza Hotel & Convention Center is owned by Atrium Hospitality, which made a deal with the John Q. Hammons Estate to liquidate Hammons’ hotels, operated as JQH Hotels & Resorts, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.

Gage said Atrium is mindful of the problem, but the company continues to provide the best hospitality environment it can with the resources available.

“They are working very hard to do the best they can with the resources they have,” Gage said. “We are very appreciative of their efforts.”

Stories in the SBJ archives show a $5 million makeover of the University Plaza Hotel, with funding help from the city of Springfield, in 2003, and a $2 million upgrade of the hotel’s interior and exterior in 2013. More recent renovations are not recorded.

Gage said the city’s efforts toward addressing convention center problems are in the planning stages.

“Enhancing our community’s convention capabilities has been a midlevel priority for some time,” he said. “In the long term, it would be nice to have a facility that could allow us to better compete with some larger, newer venues in Missouri and surrounding states.”

In 2019, a feasibility study conducted by Hunden Strategic Partners and commissioned by the city and the Springfield CVB suggested placing a convention center and hotel development near Bass Pro Shops. The Chicago-based firm predicted the economic impact of such a development would be $1.1 billion over a 20-year period, according to past SBJ reporting.

Two previous studies looked at other sites for a new convention center, in an effort dating back to 2011. Those sites included locations at Battlefield Road and Highway 65, Glenstone Avenue and Kearney Street, and downtown next to the Springfield Expo Center.

The 2019 study recommended a 100,600-square-foot center and a connected or adjacent hotel. At the time of its release, Kimberlin called the study a first step. No action has yet resulted from it.

In a 2022 CEO Roundtable interview with SBJ, Kimberlin spelled out some of the problems faced by Atrium, which purchased the University Plaza property a couple years before the pandemic. COVID-19 was particularly hard on the convention industry, Kimberlin said, and that left Atrium strapped for money.

“We have been talking to the top management at Atrium about how we need this property upgraded – badly,” Kimberlin said. “They tell us that they’re in the process of trying to figure out what the opportunities are here, what they invest in the property, how much they invest or do they sell it.”

At that time, Kimberlin said he thought the Springfield property was the top priority for Atrium.

If announcements of investments have been made by the company since that time, they did not show up in an internet search.

Hecquet said he hears discussions of the convention center issue from city staff and City Council members, and developers, too, have expressed interest in a convention center as a development opportunity, though he declined to name them.

“There’s a lot of talk,” he said. “I can’t tell you there’s anything definitive right now, but the talk is in the right direction.”

Hecquet was complimentary of efforts by the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds & Event Center to fill the void by serving an otherwise unserved market in the city, with its 85,000-square-foot EPlex Center Hall exhibit space, its grandstand and its new Wilson Logistics Arena. It’s a place for concerts, trade shows, sporting events and more, he said.

“Does it fill the entire void of a convention center? No, but it further lends itself to Springfield being a very desirable location with wonderful amenities,” he said. “That’s why people want to come to Springfield, but we need to develop a convention product that’s appealing.”

He said the city lacks a facility that has a large central space with a sufficient number of breakout rooms.

“You’ve been to conventions. You know what the needs are,” he said. “We can do civic events, external events, but we don’t have that marquee venue that can really be a showpiece for the city of Springfield.”

Branson steps in
At the Branson Convention Center, managed by Los Angeles-based ASM Global, Teel has been on the job since October, and she called the 220,000-square-foot center “a busy little building.”

“If I’m looking at days of the year, we’re probably 85% occupied, meaning on 85% of the days we have at least one event going on in the building,” she said. “That’s exciting for a market of this size.”

Branson is a tourist destination, offering lots for convention-goers to do, she said. Additionally, it’s a safe city.

“That’s everyone’s No. 1 priority,” she said. “That aspect is really commendable, and it’s a good draw to bringing events here.”

Teel said the center can host almost any event, depending on a sponsoring organization’s price point.

Based on event volume and types, Teel said the Branson center needs an expansion, and while that has been discussed, she said no plans are yet in place.

“We’re reaching capacity,” she said. “We are running out of dates, running out of space, not just for new events, but to continue to service the events we have worked with for many years.”

Teel said many conferences come back to the Branson Convention Center repeatedly, and successful events see their registrations grow.

One recent event at the Branson Convention Center was the Midwest Manufacturers Trade Show & Conference, held Feb. 20-21. Officials told SBJ the event drew 785 registrations – 100 more than the previous year – plus 136 exhibitors, up 10% from 2023, according to past reporting.

She noted the exhibit hall can serve nearly 4,000 in a sit-down general session, with dinner space for 1,600-1,800. The ballroom seats 800-1,000 for a banquet, she said, or 2,000-2,500 guests theater style.

The center has seven breakout rooms on its upper level, and it is connected to a hotel, where guests can stay and walk to convention events.

“We love our partners at the Hilton,” she said. “Together, we’ve seen a lot of success.”

At the Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel, there are 292 rooms, according to hotel officials.

Teel said she and her staff have many goals they would like to accomplish in 2024, and one is to continue the level of guest satisfaction it experienced in 2023, when surveys showed satisfaction levels of 80% or higher.

“We’re going to continue to provide great quality products and services,” she said.

She added that a focus this year is to highlight more local experiences to celebrate shows and tourism destinations in Branson.

“People come to Branson for a particular reason, and we want to make sure we’re showcasing that,” she said.

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