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As the new general manager of University Plaza Hotel and the Springfield Expo Center, Robert Henley already is working to explore different ways to market the Expo Center venue and bring more groups to the city.
As the new general manager of University Plaza Hotel and the Springfield Expo Center, Robert Henley already is working to explore different ways to market the Expo Center venue and bring more groups to the city.

New GM for Expo Center marks latest change on events scene

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With timing that John Q. Hammons Hotels & Resorts officials say is coincidental, there’s a new general manager in town for University Plaza Hotel and Convention Center and the Springfield Exposition Center.

The company announced Jan. 26 that Robert Henley would be the general manager for the two Springfield properties. An eight-year veteran with the company, Henley previously held the same role at another JQH property, the Holiday Inn Joplin Convention Center and Spa.

The announcement came just days after city staff delivered a report that found management of the Expo Center had fallen short of expectations.

“Staff does not believe that the Exposition Center has been marketed or used to its maximum potential,” according to the report, presented at a Jan. 20 Springfield City Council luncheon.

Justin Harris, general counsel for JQH Hotels & Resorts, said the decision to move Henley to Springfield was actually made several weeks ago, and not in response to the report findings.  

Henley’s new job is just one of several changes in the local event venue arena. At the Ramada Oasis Convention Center, a $5.6 million renovation and expansion is under way, and Bass Pro Shops plans to open its renovated White River Conference Center in April – and all point to an evolving landscape when it comes to booking local events.  

Expo marketing
The recent Expo Center report was requested by Councilman Tom Bieker before the city of Springfield repurchased the vacant land just east of the Expo property for $1 in December. That property had been slated for an Embassy Suites hotel to be built by JQH Hotels & Resorts and connected to the Expo Center. The city is now awaiting the results of a separate economic impact study by Chicago-based Hunden Strategic Partners, which in August recommended more than $100 million in public and private investments to draw more convention business to Springfield.

According to the August report, the Springfield Expo Center was booked for 37 events in 2010, far below the other five cities studied.

The Jan. 20 city staff report to council found that Hammons Hotels’ management contract of the city’s Expo Center could be terminated if the city determines the managers are guilty of unsatisfactory performance, and it recommends that the company  work with the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau to better market the property.

“I’m meeting with (CVB President Tracy Kimberlin) and the folks at the CVB to look at the marketing plan we have currently and see if any tweaking needs to be done,” Henley said Jan.31, during his first week on the job. “Their marketing plan will come out in June, and we’ll try to tie ours in with theirs for 2013.”

An immediate goal for Henley is to increase social media marketing for both University Plaza and the Expo Center, and in the long term, he wants to collaborate with representatives of other meeting venues to bring more groups to town.

“I was used to working with other venues in Joplin (and) I think it’s a good opportunity for Springfield to have more drivers bringing visitors to Springfield.”

Meeting expectations
Other local changes seem to address concerns noted in the August Hunden report, including a lack of break-out rooms for meetings and events.

425 Downtown Events and Catering, which has event space at 425 W. Walnut St. in downtown Springfield as well as space in south Springfield, recently added two meeting rooms at 322 S. Campbell Ave. and 324 S. Campbell Ave., said Operations Manager Shelby Williams.

Williams said 425 Downtown owner Matt Krupa, a partner in south-side eatery Pasta Express, expanded the company’s banquet property portfolio to meet growing demand.

Williams said 425 Downtown officials are talking with University Plaza representatives about the possibility of shuttling large groups to its expanded downtown facilities, which can be used as break-out meeting space.

The Hunden report also identified the lack of a covered walkway from a nearby hotel as another complaint about the Expo Center from convention planners.

That won’t be a concern for the Ramada Oasis Convention Center, however, after renovations and an expansion are completed, which is expected May 31.

The roughly 13,000-square-foot expansion will allow the Ramada Oasis to accommodate multiple events simultaneously, said General Manager Missy Handyside.

“We have the convention center behind the hotel, and it’s just one large room that would accommodate about 700 people for a sit-down dinner, but it did not have the flexibility to be divided into smaller meeting rooms,” she said of the property, which now has 16,000 square feet of convention space, including eight meeting rooms.

“So, when we booked an event, regardless of whether there were 700 people or 200 people, that was the only event we could hold,” she added.

A 7,000-square-foot room, which can be divided into three separate spaces will be added, as well as a new lobby and an enclosed walkway between the hotel and convention spaces.

Selection strategies
At Bass Pro Shops, work continues on the White River Conference Center, which replaces the White River Room, an events venue that was located inside Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World on South Campbell Avenue. The new center is designed to accommodate 650 guests and is connected to the Wonders of the Ozarks Learning Facility within the John A. and Genny Morris Conservation Education Center on the Bass Pro campus.

And though the venue is still a few months away from completion, Natalie Alford, banquet coordinator, already has booked 20 events this year, according to Springfield Business Journal archives.

“With Bass Pro’s new additions and with what the Oasis has going on, it has definitely increased the level of competition in the area,” Williams said.

Handyside said, too, that the changes are likely making the city more attractive to groups.

“Now I think Springfield is able to offer groups more of a variety in meeting space, whereas before there was University Plaza, and that’s a great hotel, but that was about the only choice in town for larger events,” Handyside said. “If they didn’t have the date available that a certain group needed, the whole city would lose out on the event.”

Mary Valloni, regional distinguished events director for the American Cancer Society’s high plains division, said she’s witnessed the changing events scene in Springfield throughout her roughly 11 years working to book local events.

Now, Valloni manages the Cattle Baron’s Ball for ACS, a fundraiser that brings together more than 1,000 guests at the newly constructed William H. Darr Agricultural Center.

She agreed with Handyside that there used to be much fewer options for event venues in town, and she understands why venue owners are willing invest in attracting new groups.

“You want to keep up with the times,” Valloni said. “You want to be able to accommodate a variety of activities.”[[In-content Ad]]

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