Northeast Ohio is booming. New venues and hotels are sprouting up throughout the region and visitors are pouring in, so planners seeking an energetic, bustling host city should look no further than the seat of Cuyahoga County.
Cleveland.com reported that travel and tourism generated $6.7 billion in business activity and brought almost 15 million visitors into the area last year, and local officials are hoping the new Cleveland Medical Mart and Convention Center, set to open in July 2013, will keep those statistics trending upward. According to the Ohio Tourism Division’s most recent Economic Impact of Tourism Study, there is more than $2 billion in visitor-related development under way in this part of the state, and the number of visitors to downtown Cleveland is expected to double in 2013.
“As we are reintroducing the convention market to our city and boosting our physical capacity, we’re starting to see groups consider Cleveland that hadn’t looked at the city in many years,” says Mike Burns, senior vice president of convention sales and services for the Positively Cleveland CVB.
During more than seven years of planning, developers realized that to make the new Medical Mart successful, they could combine it with a much-needed new convention center and create a large, integrated facility, housed on the site of Cleveland’s former, outdated convention center.
“Healthcare is very strong in northeast Ohio,” says Tony Prusak, senior director of convention sales for the Cleveland Medical Mart and Convention Center, adding that when combined with key regional industries such as manufacturing, chemicals, aerospace, polymers and rubber, there will be plenty of demand to fill the space. He predicts the center will host a mix of about half medical trade shows and half events from other industries.
Construction on the project began in 2011 and is on track to conclude months ahead of schedule. The $465 million undertaking is a partnership between Cuyahoga County and Merchandise Mart Properties Inc. (MMPI), which also operates Chicago’s 4.2 million-square-foot Merchandise Mart.
On a slightly less gargantuan scale, the Cleveland Center will sit on a 1.1 million-square-foot campus, anchored by a 30,000-square-foot ballroom and the 235,000-square-foot Medical Mart, which will house permanent showrooms on healthcare information technology, medical devices and related development projects.
According to the Healthcare Convention & Exhibitors Association, the average healthcare meeting has about 1,975 attendees, a size that will be easily accommodated by the Medical Mart.
“We have the ability to provide medical associations with world-class speakers that are only five miles down the street,” Prusak says.
With major hospitals and research institutions located nearby and approximately 480,000 people employed in healthcare, bioscience and related support roles in the Cleveland area, the center’s location will make the Medical Mart an enticing venue for industry associations.
The center hopes to draw large groups from all over the country, and local hospitals will be involved with the bids to bring major conventions to Cleveland.
Prusak believes the state-of-the-art venue will open up new opportunities for the city and strengthen its ability to foster business-to-business connections. Like its sister property, the Merchandise Mart, the Medical Mart and Convention Center will seek LEED Silver certification.
“Sustainability means a lot to planners these days,” he says.
Almost 99 percent of the debris from the demolition of the previous buildings on the site were recycled and utilized in the new construction.
Beyond the health care industry, Prusak says non-medical groups will bring their attendees here because their market is here, too. Organizations such as the rubber division of the American Chemical Society, Ohio Optometric Association and the Case Management Society of America have already booked major conferences for the near future.
“With the new convention center coming on-line, Cleveland will be able to pursue new business and welcome a variety of large groups,” Burns says.
The Westin Cleveland Convention Center Hotel, expected to open in 2014 adjacent to the convention center, will add 472 guest rooms and further boost the city’s ability to accommodate major conferences.
According to Prusak, the center will provide great opportunities to bring buyers and sellers together, and once they’re here, groups will be able to take advantage of all that Cleveland has to offer in terms of lodging, dining, culture and convenience.
“It’s an affordable city, and easily accessible for a large percentage of the nation’s population,” Burns says. “The airport is a United Airlines hub, and you can land, get your luggage and be in your hotel room in less than 30 minutes.”
The speedy turnaround time makes it easy for attendees to refresh after the day’s meetings before heading out to visit the sites or digest some of Cleveland’s burgeoning food scene.
“The last few years have been amazing for our restaurants, and they’re still growing,” Burns says. “There aren’t many chain restaurants here, and the boom has added a lot to the experiences of attendees and tourists coming into the city.”
“Chef Michael Symon of Iron Chef really put Cleveland on the map in terms of culinary quality,” Prusak says. “We have a lot of unique chef-driven restaurants.”
The list includes Karen Small’s locally focused Flying Fig, Matt Mathlage’s Light Bistro, serving tapas, and Michelin-starred Chef Dante Boccuzzi’s signature restaurant Dante.
Chef Douglas Katz of Fire Food & Drink was selected to lead the new restaurant and cafe opening at the Cleveland Museum of Art this fall as part of the museum’s ongoing expansion and renovation. A new 39,000-square-foot central atrium will house internationally themed food stations, and Katz’s team will offer catering services for private events and receptions.
Hungry attendees can also stroll through the architecturally impressive West Side Market, which is celebrating its centennial this year. Underneath the iconic clock tower, designed by Seth Thomas Clock Company, which also created the clock in New York’s Grand Central Station, more than 100 vendors representing dozens of ethnicities sell handmade pastas, artisanal cheeses and specialty foods and meats. Year-long festivities include a street festival and centennial gala.
In September, Cleveland and the West Side Market hosted the eighth annual International Public Markets conference, celebrating small farms, locally grown food, public spaces and the market’s longstanding presence in the urban community.
Adding to the city’s cultural panache is the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Cleveland, which unveiled an enormous $350 million expansion this month. The new 34,000-square-foot structure has a distinctive mirrored exterior and is 44 percent larger than the museum’s previous location. The four-story building has a startling geometric footprint, rising from a hexagonal base to a square top, with exhibitions and space for public programs on all four floors. The museum expects the expansion to draw 65,000 visitors within its first year.
MOCA’s inaugural exhibition, Inside Out and From the Ground Up, runs through February 2013 and examines how artists interact with concepts of space and structure.
Facility rentals and flexible event spaces are available, and groups can participate in tours and two-hour-long See + Do programs that introduce attendees to new materials and artistic processes.
“The atrium that is part of the MOCA expansion is going to be a home run in terms of event spaces,” Burns says.
Other classic venue options include the only-in-Cleveland Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, which can be rented in its entirety for private events, and Playhouse Square theater district, which is second only to New York City in terms of seat numbers.
The $350 million Horseshoe Casino Cleveland, Ohio’s first full-service casino, opened downtown in May. It boasts 96,000 square feet of gaming space, a 30-table World Series of Poker room and various bars and dining outlets.
The city’s compact size and walkability also means convention groups will feel like they are the focus of the town.
“When someone brings their convention here, they aren’t one of many groups, they’re the only group in Cleveland,” Burns says, adding that there is a lot of positive change happening in the city. “Cleveland has always been a great city. Now we can host larger conventions and show even more people what a great city we are.”