By Jenni Hart
Photos by Davies Photography
With its government offices and growing corporate tenancy, downtown Raleigh can appear rather buttoned-up to the uninitiated. Stick around long enough, however, and you’ll be treated to a Kylo Ren or Tinkerbell sighting when Supercon turns city sidewalks into a Cosplay wonderland. A few months later, you’ll see more banjos than bowties when the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) returns for its weeklong World of Bluegrass event. If online reviews and multi-year contracts are any indication, the Raleigh Convention Center has emerged as a favorite destination for folks who aren’t shy about sharing their interests and talents. Behind the scenes, however, other groups gather by the thousands and are scarcely noticed by the casual observer.
PhotoDoug Grissom, director of the Raleigh Convention and Performing Arts Complex, says the changes to downtown in the past decade - due in part to the 2006 return of vehicle access to Fayetteville Street – have elevated the city’s profile as a prime destination for corporate events, professional association meetings, conferences and festivals. “We often hear about return visits to Raleigh or folks who eventually relocate to the area as a result of their experience at a Convention Center event,” Grissom says.
He once received a letter from a Boston woman who wrote to thank him for the way her visit to Raleigh had changed her life. While attending an athletic event at the center, the woman said she was struck by the friendliness of the parking garage attendant and the warm greetings from strangers on the street. “She said she went home to Boston, where she was used to people just going about their business without much interaction, and decided she would be the friendly one who took time to say ‘hi’ to strangers,” he says.
Convention Center visitors return the favor of the friendly welcome by spending their money in downtown and nearby hotels, as well as with local restaurants and retailers. Hosting an average of 250 to 350 events each year, the 500,000-square-foot facility infuses outside dollars into the local economy while also showcasing the city’s considerable cultural and entertainment assets, innovative business environment and renowned academic institutions. “This would never have been possible even a decade ago,” says Grissom, noting that going from a handful of downtown restaurants to nearly 150 is just one of many tangible results of the city’s evolution.
Grissom describes the World of Bluegrass Event as likely bringing the highest hotel room occupancy ever to Wake County. Attendance at last year’s event was estimated in excess of 208,000 - a significant increase over the 140,000 attendees in 2013, IBMA’s first year in Raleigh. April’s Deep South Basketball Classic, another blockbuster event for Raleigh, brought in 7,000 visitors, with nearly 500 teams playing on 20 courts. Over the four-day event, 9,000 hotel room nights infused the travel and tourism coffers with hard-won revenue. “We’re really competing for that business,” says Grissom. “We don’t take any of that for granted.” That some contracts are signed three to five years in advance – and, in some cases, as much as 10 – is evidence that the Convention Center setting and amenities are in big demand.
“Our only constraint is that the demand is so high,” Grissom says, noting recent discussion of plans to eventually add meeting space and hotel rooms. In the meantime, he says that his job, and that of Convention Center staff, is to continue the good work of welcoming visitors – and locals – to a downtown centerpiece that we can all be proud of.
Photos below courtesy of the Raleigh Convention Center.