TourismDIARY OF A CONVENTION WHORE
On a breezy Wednesday afternoon in late September, the southern end of International Drive rests in the shadows of the Orange County Convention Center’s elliptical sky-high protrusion. Approaching the North/South concourse (opened in 2003), a pickup truck’s horn blows angrily, though it’s traveling the wrong way on an all-but-abandoned one-way road. Lovebugs cling to the three-year-old white paint on the stairway railings, while the glass-fronted architectural dream of commerce reflects all light to a mysterious place far away — anywhere but here.
Even the stillness here is deceptive. Around back, Honda is test-driving new models for national dealers. Inside, a group of Christian meeting planners is getting a tutorial on just how and where to throw its events. Even when nothing’s happening here, something is happening.
This is the glittering jewel of Orlando’s tourism industry, a behemoth structure that, according to the convention center’s own figures, brings in 1.5 million people and pumps more than $1 billion into the local economy every year. Along the densely populated midway of I-Drive, restaurants and luxury hotels depend on it to keep their coffers full. But this is also a building that taxpayers are still paying off, to the tune of $2.8 billion, or about $76 million a year until 2032, when Orange County’s construction bonds will be paid off.
Is it worth it? Sure, there’s a strong economic argument, but what about aesthetically? In a wholly unscientific experiment, I immersed myself in two random weeks of convention life, the kind that it is typically closed to the public eye. I wanted to see just how this imaginary city lives and breathes in a climate of perpetual physical change, the dynamics of a psychology so built on commerce that it doesn’t matter where it happens, just when. Well, mostly I wanted to get free stuff. Instead, this is what I got.
10:30 a.m. Aug. 28, 2006
A smattering of terminally 20-ish hair professionals, each in varying distillations of the last outfit they remember wearing in the eighth grade, trudge the distance between parking lot and destination. They’re all here for one reason: PremiereOrlando06, the professionals-only beauty show currently pulsating in the West Building of the Orange County Convention Center.
“I hear that this is the biggest show in the Southeast,” I tell a Premiere rep behind a black curtain in a makeshift registration office.
“It’s the biggest show anywhere,” she corrects.
Few would have expected, as the Boston Pops christened the 180,000-square-foot Orange County Convention and Civic Center in 1983, that it would grow to its current behemoth size of 7 million square feet.
“I can tell you that in 1983 when we opened, the thought of having what we have today was beyond our imagination,” says OCCC executive director Tom Ackert. “I was assigned to the convention center on a full-time basis in 1991, and when I would go on the road and meet clients, I would have to explain where Orange County was, because they wouldn’t know. They thought we were from California or something.”
They know now. The convention center has expanded four times, the most recent addition being the 2003 North/South complex (the first four of its five phases are known collectively as the West building). The center has gone from being a small structure in a small town to the second largest convention center in square footage for all of the United States, with only Chicago exceeding its physical scope. (It boasts 2.2 million square feet in exhibition space to Orange County’s 2.1 million square feet.) The OCCC is also second in terms of pulling the biggest trade shows. In 2005, it landed 26 shows, behind Las Vegas’ 44. Chicago fell to third with 20.
The North-South expansion used 27,000 tons of steel, compared to the Eiffel Tower’s 7,300 tons. It has 1.65 miles in partition panels. As for the West building, if Chicago’s Sears Tower needed to lie down sideways, it could do so comfortably in the building’s 2,500-foot-long exhibition space.
The convention center is rarely open to the public. Of the projected 370 events in 2006, only nine are publicly ticketed. One hundred ninety-nine are meetings, 119 are trade shows and conventions, 28 are consumer events and 15 are banquets catered by the convention center’s exclusive contractor, Levy Restaurants. Factor into the standard three-to-four-day show length, the four-day load-in and the two-day strike (large home shows can take up to two weeks for setup alone), and the convention center has a lot to manage. There are at least 400 staffers there to assist — “an army,” says Ackert.
Overstatement overlooked, there is at least some sense of inevitable duty in the air: over there wafting with the sweet smell of hair products, over here amid this veritable metropolis of superfluous vanity commerce. You can sense it in the faces and free samples lining the booths. This isn’t just for fun. There is work to be done.
Anna Scrupski did that work yesterday, when she shanghaied a modeling gig from an agency friend of hers and consequently spent the day behind a Pureology curtain waiting for a free haircut. Scrupski’s with me today so that she might have a better chance of procuring freebies (of which there will be few; most were dispensed yesterday) and possibly standing next to her favorite cast-off from America’s Next Top Model. She’s here, you know. And she has a bob, just like Scrupski, who got her bob yesterday from a hairdresser who proclaimed, “Bobs are back!”
Inside, the thoroughfare is so frenzied that I can’t even cast aspersions upon the bearded, bloated beauticians stumbling around the morning’s wet bar. I’m too busy craning my neck to catch the Rusk Speed Freak demo (it’s a 2,000-watt ceramic blow drier) and bearing witness to the wisdom that, as one of the hair stylists says, “We are all salespeople! We sell ourselves everyday!” Booze. Speed. Booze. Speed.
The pièce de résistance here is the giant Sebastian Cirque du Soleil–style tent, lined inside with its own amphitheater seating. This is where our Top Model is spending her 17th minute and where the most inventive styles promise to pump. Yaz’s “Situation” is blaring in remix form, while a series of stylists attempt to pitch their wares and, well, motivate. However, if this is motivation — extensions dipped in adhesives and then molded into the shape of hollow ornamental balls to be stuck to the side of the head — then it may be best to look away. The models ultimately look like skinny victims. The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” blasts over the speakers.
We notice on our way out the door that a fungus and mold seminar is being held in one of the smaller meeting areas, which seems like a fitting consequence.
11 a.m. Sept. 8, 2006
I’m here at the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Show, as I suppose most in attendance are, to stick a wet finger into the buzz breeze of the restaurant industry, to figure out what’s next.
“I’m cool. Touch me,” reads the sign in front of Warren Sackler’s Satellite Cooling Systems booth. He’s peddling a serving table that either freezes or heats, depending on your needs. “So, what’s the market?” I ask.
“Sweet 16 parties,” he replies. “Like Cold Stone Creamery. Over there, they have to shovel ice.”
Diagonally across from this chilly reception, a Volkswagen Beetle has been pimped into a crustacean facsimile, lobster claws and all, in the name of promoting Bar Harbor Seafood and Boston Lobster Feast. A chef is utilizing said shoveled ice to preserve the integrity of bite-sized lobster samples, and he doesn’t appear to be having any fun. I ask if I can take his picture. He frowns.
After a stint of walking the convention grid in various geographic patterns of up and down (like an Etch-a-Sketch), I feel like I’m finally starting to understand the drill. After I fall in, somebody just to my right leans over to say, “Hey, you wanna buy some shit?”
Over in a bartending corner, I throw back a sample of a squeezable Pina Colada mix, Simply Squeeze Coco Réal, presented here with real Bacardi.
I make a quick foray into the event’s new addition, the Orlando Pizza Show. Sure, there’s an American Pizza Championship in the corner — contestants actually make a pizza! — but the two pizza aisles here are pretty light on the sampling charms; indeed, light on any charm at all.
Economically speaking, the Orange County Convention Center reports fantastic gains since its inception. In 1983, it featured 129 events with 342,982 attendees, and had an estimated economic impact of $26.2 million. By 2005, the number of events had doubled, to 259, with an estimated 1.4 million attendees and a $1.4 billion economic impact (by this calculation, every conventioneer generates $1,000). Despite receiving as much as $10 million from Orange County tourist development taxes a year, the facility’s operations are intended to be self-sustaining, but that’s a theory usually not borne out in practice. The convention center has operated in the red for 21 of its first 23 years, with 1990 and 1997 being the exceptions.
“The financial side of it has been very solid,” says Ackert. “The operations of the convention center have always had a complement of tourist development tax funds in there. For example, this year we’re authorized up to $10 million for the TDT as a subsidy or supplement to the operations of the Orange County Convention Center. Historically, I think that the convention center has only used the authorized amount one time. It’s usually been less than that, and it will be again this year.”
In 2004, the center pulled $8.5 million out of the tax; add to that $20 million the Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau uses to promote tourism and the I-Drive corridor, and you’ve got a pretty good chunk of the estimated $120 million the tax generates per year.
Meanwhile, the trade show industry has seen a steady decline since its peak in 1998, and tourism in general took a pounding from the events of Sept. 11, 2001, leaving the convention center expansion — which ran $18 million over budget — exposed as a target for economic skepticism.
“The original budget was set in 1998 at $750 million. And we ultimately settled up in 2006 with an additional $18 million,” Ackert says.
But is it living up to expectations?
“The performance of the convention center has been on par with every other expansion,” says Ackert. “In other words, you have a spike usually in the first year or first two years that you open, when the planners commit and they want to see how it works. Then you have a flat period, and then it starts to grow back again. I think that the expansion has performed very well. I couldn’t describe it as excellent, because we haven’t had the other component we expected.”
That component, he says, is the expectation that the Peabody, the Hyatt and the Hilton would rise to luxurious standards and help handle the increase in flow. It has yet to happen, Ackert says. “Those were supposed to provide additional meeting-room and ballroom space, plus the additional sleeping-room component,” he says. “So, you know, it hasn’t performed as well as we would have liked.”
The real star here is La Nova Wings — apparently wings are the new pizza — so I grab a drumstick and play along. The girl who sauces my poultry is either named Mandy or Mindy, she says, before making fun of her own accent.
At this point I discover an odd numbness, and it has nothing to do with the liquor samples. Standing in the middle of everything, spinning around in a panicked circle, the cornered markets all start to blur together in a tragic symphony. If you were to put them all together, they might function in one advertising-to-digestion flow chart, but apart, they’re just bits in a process — a fractured mess of overreaching-hype kind of process. Perhaps I’ve found convention Zen.
The La Nova Wings mascot almost drops a giant plate of greasy wings, catching them on the feathered torso of his giant yellow chicken costume. He looks around to see if anyone notices, pushes them back on the plate, and gets back to business.
2 p.m. Sept. 8, 2006
Next door at the Toy and Game Industry Foundation show, things are decidedly less tasteful. Manning their homemade conceptions of what fun should be, 30 extremely bored, rarely patronized individuals wait to be picked up for major distribution. Many are swearing by fantasy-card games; some are even less exciting than that.
“Now, how can you be press?” asks a 50-something Darlene Hanington. “You don’t look like press! I don’t see no notebook or camera.”
I produce both and lean in for a demonstration. Hanington’s a violin teacher from Houston, and as such has crafted a “fun” way of learning to read music. Note Logic, it’s called; by employing a three-dimensional take on note length, she thinks she’s got the goods. She and her friend start stacking, then unstacking, then shuffling around.
“What do you ladies do for fun?” I inquire. “Like, at night. Do you go out swinging and boozing with all the other conventioneers?”
“Oh, no,” Darlene says. “I’m old. I’ve already had my fun.”
Further into the third dimension, a cheery Roger Yanagita eagerly tells me about his invention, Lunar Blocks. Basically, they’re clear inflatable modular blocks that connect with Velcro, although he’s clearly not satisfied with the prototype: small modest rafts with particleboard glued to them. We talk about sexually designated marketing involving blue forts for boys and pink princess castles for girls. “We could make them green for the environmentalists,” he jokes.
6:30 p.m. Sept. 11, 2006
The (uncreatively named) Tradeshow is in full swing at the OCCC, so to warm up for my visit tomorrow, I’ve accepted an invite to Universal’s new Red Coconut Club at CityWalk. Because the Tradeshow is all about travel, I’ve fielded invitations to come and get drunk from travel agencies from countries as diverse as South Africa, Korea and China. I thought it might be interesting to see what the hometown has to offer. The rest of the world is exhausting.
I rub shoulders with some Universal brass, including spokesman Tom Schroeder, and sit down among, well, the rest of the Universal brass (it seems that I’m the only journalist in town who accepted the invite). The Red Coconut Girl, a theme-park character exercise, walks around with a palm tree on her head and seems a little out of place. New VP of sales Dan Cupertino (he came from Disney, natch) upsells the brand with the usual suspects: Halloween Horror Nights, cheaper tickets, Hard Rock Hotel renovations. I pick at a piece of steak on a stick.
“This is mostly for travel agents and travel magazines,” a hotel rep says with a smirk. “But we’re glad you came.”
1 p.m. Sept. 12, 2006
By the time I reach the Tradeshow, only the shell of the show remains — a sea of red punctuated by various country-identified backboards — but a few straggling foot-shufflers pass through. What was once an international big deal now feels sullen and balkanized. It’s funny how impotent this place feels without the hustle of commercial purpose, how plain everybody’s gazes are without the velocity of masses moving toward bigger, louder, more.
At the Met Global/HotelsPro table, things aren’t going so well. Three women sit in front of a sign reading, “Our booth was lost by carriers! Please come talk to us.”
In Costa Rica, somebody else is talking when he shouldn’t be. “You look like a friend of mine from Costa Rica!” a chipper businessman says to a young Latino. “Are you Costa Rican?”
In June, the county raised the hotel tax by a penny, hoping to secure additional funds for the proposed redevelopment of downtown Orlando (the performing arts center, a new arena and Citrus Bowl renovations), and hoping as well to dedicate more money to tourism advertising.
Ackert says that there is no bad blood between the convention center and the downtown projects, pointing out that the TDT has forever been a “three-legged stool,” and has been used for the arena construction and Citrus Bowl renovations in the past. He’s more than comfortable with the “the great thing [they] have going out on I-Drive.”
“The Orlando Sentinel especially likes to beat the crap out of tourism, but you know what? Tourism is our lifeblood,” he says. “People who think that that airport would exist if it wasn’t for tourism, they’re out of their minds.”
He was impressed by the idea of building a new arena near I-Drive, but refused to get involved. “I wasn’t about to touch that,” he says. “It’s like a hot potato. That’s not our thing.”
That deal’s off the table, with the new arena slated for downtown. And any expansion, despite quiet rumblings of a need for increased meeting-room space two years ago, is a long way off.
“We would not propose something without a thorough market study, just like the one that was done in 1997 and 1998,” Ackert says. “And I can tell you there’s no reason to ask for one now, because, you know, it’s not justified. We’re constantly thinking about, ‘Well, what will the future hold?’ And one of the things we don’t want to do is prevent the county from doing an expansion or doing something properly with the property in 20 years.
“If you don’t have a vision of what you might be,” he adds, “then you can’t be anything.”
There’s Peru next to Jordan, a fairly involved “Only Vegas” presentation, some rental-car dealers with head mikes and wheels of fortune, “Incredible !ndia” [sic] and Jeju Korea. The three traditionally garbed girls at the Korea setup — a set of giant paper pillars with ominous ancient art screened on them — don’t appear to want to be bothered anymore, so I bother them.
“Oh, OK,” says one, who starts filling a Korean bag with maps and fliers. “Some delicious Korean snacks?” she asks, obliging me with two crispy candy bars.
“See You Next Year in Las Vegas, September 9-11, 2007,” reads a banner over the exit.
2:30 p.m. Sept. 12, 2006
It isn’t easy gaining entrance to National Association of Elevator Contractors World Elevator Expo III. Teresa Shirley, an association member, finally arrives, then we wait for the president, Ed Chmielewski. I’m not allowed in without an escort, for security reasons. Shirley lets me know that turnout will be lower than expected because a lot of members are in New York, and a lot of them refused to fly on Sept. 11 (yesterday). Still, more than 2,200 have registered, and the association itself has about 750 members; the rest will be interested parties from within the industry, some locally. The expo only happens on this scale once every four years.
Chmielewski shows up and plays tour guide. I ask about the industry’s most pressing concerns. He says they now incorporate escalators and emergency lifts into the equation. Safety codes vary between countries, so keeping things internationally marketable can be difficult. European elevators are smaller, too; the Americans With Disabilities Act requires accommodation for wheelchairs and stretchers.
Then I’m told that there’s more of a risk of elevators flying out of the tops of buildings than crashing to the ground. It all comes down to the friction between hydraulic units and traction units, and it’s all very confusing.
“Like this,” Chmielewski says. Here in the middle of the convention center is a working elevator, side walls replaced with transparent paneling to expose the mechanisms.
We ride up the elevator to the second floor (there are only two), where more contractors are mingling while tossing back cans of beer.
When Chmielewski an I walk past a vendor pitching home elevators, he shakes his head. “Home Depot is going to be putting these on the market,” he says. “That’s not good for us.”
“You thirsty?” he asks, and then gets me a Bud Light in a coozy.
7:30 p.m. Sept. 12, 2006
Tonight’s event is the last on my itinerary, and it’s a big one. To cap off the Tradeshow, the China National Tourism Administration has decked out a giant upstairs ballroom for an unmistakably important gala. China is on everybody’s mind here, and the 2008 Olympics on the tip of everybody’s liquored tongue.
I take a seat at an empty table and try not to intrude. Within moments, my table is full of people who speak some dialect of Chinese, and very little English. They’re all taking pictures of each other with me in the background. Things warm up with the rounds of catered wine, and the beautiful woman to my left turns to me.
“Have you ever been to China?” she says in her best English.
“No, but I’d love to,” I reply.
Zhai Bao Ping is her name, and she’s the general manager of Shandong China International Travel Service. “Our office in New York,” she says, smiling.
Big speeches by important Chinese officials assure that the relationship between the United States and China is “growing smoothly,” and that “one trip a year to China is far from enough!” It’s very labored given the language issue, but charming.
A few moments later, Ping breaks from another conversation to ask me, “What is the meaning of ‘do not slam door’?” and I do my best imitation of closing a door quietly, while she looks dumbfounded. We have a long way to go, I suppose.
I eat a little, I drink some more, I watch a lovely propaganda movie about China while Ping explains everything to me without any solicitation to do so, and then I politely excuse myself. Before I can slip away, I need to snap a photograph of the traditional dance troupe just taking the stage, but find one important guest in the way of my shot.
I put my hand on his shoulder and nudge him out of my frame. “Mr. Crotty, how are you?” I ask.
“Fine, sir,” the Orange County mayor replies, wiping the soy sauce from his mouth with a napkin. “And how are you?”