July 7, 2017
The Conference Centre Becomes an Urban Experience
In the steady push towards more user-centred design, one realm seems to stand apart: the convention centre. With a few notable exceptions, the big-box venues seem like relics from an earlier era. From the escalators and exhibit halls to the cheap tote bags and out-of-the-way location, the user experience can be as predictable as eating at McDonald’s. That’s becoming a less sustainable model as cities invest in more mixed use and livable neighbourhoods. Along with tiring out attendees, the typical convention doesn’t always pay off for cities, either. Like a land-locked cruise ship, the centre’s inhabitants become cut off from the rest of the city. Users eat mainly near the convention area, shop at kiosks in the main hall, and even mail postcards without entering the city. When the event is done, many head home and essentially forget where they were.
That model no longer works. As with hotels and airports, newcomers want to experience the city and expect design that helps them do that. At the same time, city residents are seeking new ways to connect and demand space that enhances their experience, even disaggregating the convention centre across the urban fabric. Cities need facilities that can be adapted to multiple uses and generate multiple forms of revenue.
Those forces are shifting now only how convention centres are built, but also where. Once designed as single-use facilities with easy access to transport hubs, the convention centre is increasingly integrated into Central Business Districts or even spread across a city. Instead of being staged in one hall, the convention itself becomes an urban experience that takes visitors on a journey across the city.
The multi-experience venue will fast become the new convention typology. Instead of simply being a place to host gatherings and events, the convention centre must morph into an entertainment venue, a social hub, a gallery, a performance space, a marketplace, a learning institution, or even a workspace. The space must lend itself to a host of activities that have not yet even been conceived. Hybrid facilities that integrate the physical and the digital will support multi-space and time interactions, not to mention the virtual delegate.
Such innovations redefine the user experience of the convention attendee. Instead of being herded with a cast of thousands through exhibit halls, the user is treated as an individual, invited to join personalized learning experiences and small-group gatherings. The experience has a real-time, almost ad hoc feel. After all, a growing number of attendees are as likely to come in on a whim from around the corner as arrive on a long-planned trip from across the country. Instead of lecture halls that evoke college or rows of exhibits that are reminiscent of a grocery store, attendees can enter “maker-spaces” and social hubs that promote team-based learning and knowledge sharing. The experience is collaborative, timely, and personalized. The attendee is in fact a participant who contributes to the experience and uses the space as a platform.
To more fully achieve this potential, the convention centre itself must also be redesigned. The “box with docks” model will not support this new direction. Instead, cities need a multimodal venue that incorporates more open spaces that allow for more orchestrated serendipity, with events that spill into the neighbouring community, a festival feel, and more marketplace opportunities. Sensors and other technologies are used to enhance communication, the media experience, and the adaptability of the building to climate and usage. The plenary and flat-floor space can shift to handle large-scale concerts and other entertainment while also enabling more intimate gatherings. Pre-function spaces, which are often among the largest in a city’s asset base, are designed as galleries with a flexible infrastructure. The hyper-sized structure is giving way to a lean venue model which trade dedicated support space for green rooms that serve as swing space, enabling quick re-sizing. New typologies include incubator and interactive spaces that act as platforms for people to share ideas and collaborate.
The heft of a convention centre will increasingly be measured not by the size of its exterior but by the breadth of what happens inside. Instead of sitting away from the heart of its host city, a destination in itself, convention facilities become a part of that heart. Users from near and far get a more distinctive urban experience — and help to create it.