Orange County CC's 20-year Campus Master Plan Looks Towards Expansion and Improvements

October 20, 2015

By Wendy Helfenbaum

When Kathie Canning first started working at Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center in the mid 1980s, it was a bit of a circus. Literally.

“At that time, we were the only concert venue; we did a lot of civic events, and we did the circus every year. It was very interesting when Avon came in to do a meeting right after the elephants left,” said Canning, now the OCCC’s executive director. “Many things have changed drastically since then; it’s been quite an amazing transformation.”

Today, as convention centers worldwide explode in number, size, and technology, Orlando is leading the conversation.

Since opening in 1983 as a 150,000 square foot event center, OCCC has become the second-largest convention facility in the U.S., after Chicago’s McCormick Place.

With 2.1 million square feet of exhibit space and close to 500,000 in meeting space, the center hosts 200 events annually – including about 100 convention trade shows – generating an economic impact of $2 billion for the region's tourism and business convention industry.

Currently, the OCCC is in the midst of a five-year $187 million capital improvement plan, begun in 2013 to upgrade its 7 million square foot complex.

During this fifth expansion since the center opened, the West Building’s Exhibit Halls E and F will receive a major facelift, including curtain walls, lighting and utility upgrades, restroom renovations, fire alarm systems.

The center added new digital signage in its Westwood lobby in June and opened an indoor-outdoor Sunburst Terrace and 48,961 square foot Tangerine Ballroom in August.

Because today’s mega-shows require leading-edge technology to support all their moving parts, the OCCC also turned its attention in that direction.

“In terms of tech, the big thing is bandwidth, bandwidth, bandwidth,” Canning said.

Working with technology partner Smart City, the OCCC recently upgraded its wireless system in North/South and the West Buildings to handle the increasing number of attendees using portable devices at once. Now, with 1,100 access points, the OCCC’s network is one of the most reliable in the U.S., she adds.

Even before its current expansion is complete, the OCCC now is looking ahead to yet another one. Canning’s team recently developed a bold strategic planning initiative, the Campus Master Plan (CMP), which analyzed the entire 400-acre convention center campus.

The proposal – which is currently being studied by Populous, a collective of architects, designers, technical experts and industry veterans – outlines how to make the 2.5 mile long convention district more successful and will be a living document for the next 20 years, Canning notes, focusing on everything from hotels, restaurants and entertainment options to improvements in parking, transportation, and connectivity. And, of course, more space.

“We always need more meeting space for breakout events, so we beg, borrow and steal, and use some of the Hyatt’s space, and the Hilton’s,” Canning said.

In late September, Orlando county officials announced during its International Drive Steering Committee meeting that it was considering the CMP. If approved, the CMP will create significant additions to the OCCC, including a new North/South Connector space containing an 80,000 square foot ballroom, 60,000 square feet of meeting space and a new grand entrance.

The team also is discussing a circulator system, a 1,500-space parking garage for the West building and a 130,000 square foot multipurpose hall ideal for trade shows and sporting events.

In addition, plans call for removing the Chapin Theatre’s 2,643 fixed seats to create an open space for gala-type events.

The convention center’s wish list isn’t just about adding more halls, but solving other issues stemming from playing host to the country’s largest conventions and trade shows, explains Canning.

“The main issue with our clients is mobility – getting from a meeting in this room to that building, because it is a hike. That’s one of our biggest challenges,” Canning said.

The OCCC is linked to surrounding hotels through four pedestrian bridges. The Hilton’s covered open-air walkway facilities the back-and-forth, and in August, construction began on a new pedestrian bridge built over six lanes of traffic on International Drive to connect the Hyatt Regency Orlando Hotel with the convention center.

Still, plans laid out in the CMP for a new connector corridor in the North/South Building will provide easier access to various spaces within the building, Canning notes, plus its design allows it to double as a smaller convention space.

More expansion will make neighboring hotels happier, Canning said. The total room inventory serving the convention district and surrounding areas has climbed to 115,000 – second only to Las Vegas – with more properties slated to open during the next few years.

“Most of our business is convention trade shows, and our main mission is to keep those hotel rooms filled,” Canning said. “There’s been a lot of activity within the real estate market, given that the economy is good and there’s a lot more building. We anticipate Universal Boulevard being developed in the next few years, too.”

With bookings through to 2030, the OCCC is partnering with surrounding hotels that have come up with innovative ways to better serve the huge influx of attendees filing into the area.

For example, the 1,417-room Hilton Orlando and the 1,639-room Hyatt Regency Orlando recently joined forces to create Orlando 3000 – an initiative enabling planners to centrally access more than 3,000 hotel rooms at once. The two properties also provide additional much-needed indoor-outdoor meeting space for breakouts, general sessions, special events and banquets.

The Hilton offers 175,000 square feet of meeting space, including the 50,000 square foot Orlando Ballroom and the 30,000 square foot Orange Ballroom, nine boardrooms and 21 meeting rooms, 13 of which divide into two sections.

The hotel’s 50,000 square foot Outdoor Promenade features an urban park-like setting for events of up to 4,000 people. Just beyond it, eight new meeting rooms near the 15,000 square foot Florida Ballroom will be added in January.

Located directly across the street from the OCCC’s main entrance, the Hyatt’s 315,000 square feet of customizable function space includes five pillar-free ballrooms on the same level, two junior ballrooms and 105 meeting rooms.

The property also features three outdoor venues. Both hotels collaborate with onsite DMC Hello Florida, so planners get centralized service.

Even with such a busy calendar, the OCCC continuously seeks to attract new clients, Canning said.

“We love corporate business, and it has been stronger than it has been in a number of years. We consider the association business our base business, because no matter what happens in the world and in the economy, the dentists will meet," she added. “Corporations are considerably more fickle and more demanding, but when they do come, they’ll spend. So we love that – we had Microsoft here in July, with two waves of 10,000 people. Most of our time is spent trying to find new business like them. The mandate from our neighboring hotels is: ‘Fill the summer’.”

The steering committee for I-Drive improvements is going to the Board of County Commissioners Nov. 3, and Canning’s team plans on going to the board at the beginning of December. She is optimistic about the OCCC’s growth in the future.

“In Orlando, given what we do with the theme parks and hotels and the amount of reliance on this industry, 99 percent of the time, our officials are supportive," she added. 

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