The city hired consultants who projected a dramatic increase in attendance, room nights booked and tax revenue generated.
When the center opened in 1995, the results were disappointing.
Instead of more than 500,000 hotel-room nights, the center booked 170,000 in its first full year in 1996. That was about 5 percent of Mecklenburg County's hotel market.
A headline from the Charlotte Business Journal captured the city's disappointment: "We built it, they didn't come, so now what?"
Advice to expand
In the summer of 1997, the Charlotte City Council listened to a presentation from a new consultant about why its center was underperforming.
The consultant, Jeff Sachs, who is managing partner of a Georgia-based firm, Strategic Advisory Group, told council members they were "one-third of the way there" and that they "have some work to do regarding this and they need to step in the right direction."
That work included building a hotel nearby so convention attendees wouldn't have far to walk. The city decided to invest $16 million in building the 700-room Westin, which opened in 2003. That was about 10 percent of the hotel's construction cost.
The city's deal with the Westin included a parking deck and required the hotel to set aside rooms each month for conventions, ensuring the Convention Center would have room blocks to offer clients.
The opening of the Westin produced some short-term increase in business, though nowhere near projections. Bookings then receded to levels before the hotel opened.
One of the consultants who proposed a new hotel was Charlie Johnson, now with Chicago-based C.H. Johnson Consulting.
Asked why the center missed its targets, Johnson said the city was a victim of its own success.
"You were so successful with the banking business, and the rooms were consumed by commercial uses," Johnson said. "(Conventions) probably had difficulty getting room blocks."
Asked why the Westin didn't do more to improve convention business, Johnson said the Westin's rooms were also gobbled up by the city's banks, even though the city's deal reserved rooms.
The CRVA's conundrum of finding enough hotel rooms raises a question: If one of the tourism authority's goals is putting heads in beds, what does it do when the beds are already full?
The race for space
Three years after the Westin opened, Atlanta, Kansas City, Daytona Beach, Fla., and Charlotte were in a competition to land the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Charlotte's bid for the hall included the construction of a 40,000-square-foot Crown Ballroom, which would be part of the Convention Center.
The hall would, in part, make the city more attractive for meetings and trade shows because it would give attendees something uniquely Charlotte to do. It would distinguish Charlotte from other second-tier cities, like Indianapolis.
Charlotte won the hall, but on exaggerated attendance projections.
The CRVA's first-year visitors were only one-third of what was originally projected. The CRVA had trouble getting convention attendees to pay to visit the hall, and now offers them half-price admission.
Unlike the NASCAR hall, the ballroom is part of the Convention Center and is paid for with Convention Center funds.
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