October 11, 2022

ICMA Event Inaugurates Hilton, Kicks Off Fall Convention Season

With last month’s annual convention of the International City/County Managers Association (ICMA), central Ohio showed off a growing list of meeting destination advantages: the renovated Greater Columbus Convention Center, the ever-more-bustling Short North and Arena District, the brand-new Hilton Columbus Downtown 402 tower and unmatched Midwest-style hospitality.

The five-day event brought 4,214 registered visitors and an estimated $5.1 million in visitor spending, signaling a return to the momentum the region was showing in early 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic halted it abruptly.

Back then, the Convention Center and the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority were riding high on the previous year’s success with the 2019 American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) — the “superbowl of conventions,” the convention planner’s convention that put the city on display for thousands of the people who decide where convention dollars will be spent. Then came two-plus years of drought and rebuilding, but the ICMA success suggests those days are in the rearview mirror.

“We had a high trajectory” before the pandemic, said John Page, regional general manager of the Convention Center, adding, “We’re still on that same train — it might have slowed down for a little bit, but we’re still on that track to do greater things.”

Comments from some of the ICMA guests show what the city and Convention Center are doing right, Page said. More than one declared the Columbus event the “best ever” for the association; another declared that Austin, next year’s host city, “has a very high bar” to clear.

Columbus’ “special sauce” lies in a happy balance between top-notch amenities — the Convention Center, the Hilton, the hundreds of walkable restaurants, shops and other attractions — and the lowered stress factor that comes with being a so-called Tier 2 destination.

“If you put ICMA in Las Vegas, it’s just another event,” Page said. “When you come to Columbus, you’re going to feel the love, from the airport to the transportation network to the hotels. We welcome you with open arms.” That extends to employees at the Convention Center, where training emphasizes treating guests right. “If they see someone who’s lost, they’re not going to just point down the hall and tell them to turn left,” Page said. “When somebody’s lost, you’ll see an employee walking with them to where they want to go.”

The communitywide welcome includes the fact that central Ohio’s political leaders support the convention business, from appearing in bid presentations to attending events.

Central Ohio hosts many conventions with more attendees than ICMA and ASAE, Page said, but those meetings, because they bring together government leaders and meeting-industry planners, have outsized impact. And Columbus has two more notable ones on the horizon: PCMA (formerly the Professional Convention Managers Association) and the National Conference of Mayors, both in 2023.

“Columbus stands on a precipice of opportunity,” Page said. Momentum is indeed building; having budgeted conservatively for 160 events in 2022, the Convention Center has actually booked 300 for the year.

“We have events on the books to 2030,” Page said. “That’s based on the relationships and reputation we have built, and that gives us certainty about where we’re going.”



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