Tulsa events planners are riding the crest of a development boom.
And as the 550,000-SF Bank of Oklahoma Events Center nears its September opening date, meeting facilities across the area have been gearing up for the expected wave of tourism and events.
With new rooms and fresh meeting space coming online, Tulsa is poised to go after larger markets, said Kathy Tinker, director of convention sales and marketing for the Tulsa Convention Center, 100 Civic Center. The city can play host to groups as small as 100 or as large as 45,000, she said.
Tulsa is gaining an 18,000-seat, multipurpose arena while at the same time millions of dollars have been spent renovating hotels, building arenas and completing dozens of Vision 2025 projects.
Renovations to the Tulsa Convention Center started last September.
Work on the nearly 30-year-old facility, just south of the sparkling iconic arena, will be completed by December 2009. When finished, the convention center, which currently offers 227,000 SF of event space, will boast a 34,800-SF ballroom, largest in the state, as well as more than 20,000 SF of new meeting space.
Tulsa’s largest groups right now are sports, religious and equine markets, Tinker said.
“The BOk will complement the Convention Center,” Tinker said. “It gives us a big facility that we can use. A lot of times in the past we could do the meeting space but not have enough room to put all the delegates into one place.”
For example, Tulsa is now capable of inviting a group like the Southern Baptist Convention, since the BOk Center could contain the big general sessions with more than 9,000 people.
“This opens a whole new door for us,” Tinker said, who has been at the Convention Center since 1999. “We will be competitive with other cities because we will have the smaller arena and the big general session — we can do both now. BOk will partner with us if we need a big arena space.”
Existing facilities across the city have been preparing for the opening of the BOk Center. Several, including the Crowne Plaza, have been undergoing renovations.
The BOk Center and renovations to the Convention Center creates opportunities for Tulsa to host conventions that until now have been beyond the reach of city facilities, said Lori Hendricks, director of Sales at the Crowne Plaza Tulsa, 100 E. Second St.
“The addition of another convention hotel in downtown will enable us to open those doors even further,” she said.
The Crowne Plaza will wrap up its $12 million renovation of the entire facility May 1, Hendricks said. All 462 guest-rooms and suites have been renovated.
“Additionally, we have added downtown Tulsa’s only full service Starbuck’s Café; we are opening a new restaurant, The Daily Grill; adding Enterprise Rent a Car and expanding our business center,” she said.
Whether it is expanding a spa, like at Crowne Plaza, or adding amenities, existing facilities across the market are revving up for the expected boom in convention business hits.
In addition to the Tulsa Convention Center and upcoming BOk Center, other major facilities include Expo Square, which has completed the $10 million, 43,000-SF Central Park Hall and soon to be constructed, 58,000-SF Tulsa Exposition Center. That building, razed late last year, should be complete in time for the Tulsa State Fair in September.
Expo Square continues to evolve, said Amanda Blair, marketing and media manager.
“We are such a diverse facility with livestock facilities, exhibit space and concert venues,” she said.
Expo Square already boasts the largest clear space in the region — 400,000 SF — in the QuikTrip Event Center. Soon it will have two more new structures, extensive exhibit space and the historic Pavilion.
In south Tulsa there is the four-star Renaissance Tulsa Hotel and Convention Center and the nearly complete $50 million Regal Plaza and the SpiritBank Event Center.
Sports will be the draw at the SpiritBank Event Center, 10441 S. Regal Blvd.
The Tulsa 66ers, part of the NBA Development League, announced their move to Bixby in February.
The SpiritBank Event Center, at Memorial Drive and 105th Street, anchors the $50 million Regal Plaza, which features 144,000 SF of upscale restaurants, shops and a 102-room hotel.
Putting on the Ritz
Even with the downtown activity, south Tulsa has not been standing still. There has been a boomlet of hotels and convention meeting facilities, starting with the Renaissance Tulsa Hotel and Convention Center, 6808 S. 107th East Ave. The facility completed in 2003, has the largest ballroom and the only four-diamond hotel and meeting facility in northeast Oklahoma, said John Klukan, general manager.
In four years, the Renaissance has cultivated a strong and loyal following of corporate, association and social catering customers, Klukan said.
“The hotel/meeting facility is pacing at forecasted levels and slightly higher than previous years,” he said.
The Renaissance will continue doing what’s made it successful, “focusing on the customers,” Klukan said.
The BOk Center’s opening will not impact the Renaissance, he said, but a convention center hotel next to or near the new and improved downtown facilities would have a huge impact on the convention and meetings market over the next five years.
“Without the additional first class hotel rooms downtown, it will not allow the meeting/special event facilities to reach the occupancy/business levels needed,” he said.
Another hotel undergoing renovation sees little impact from the BOk Center’s opening.
The Embassy Suites Hotel, 3332 S. 79th East Ave., is undergoing a $6.5 million renovation, said Victoria Gessert, director of sales.
For the 21-year-old Embassy Suites, it is business as usual.
“I see minimal impact on downtown hotels for the leisure market,” Gessert said.
Embassy boasts a 4,000 SF of exhibit and meeting space, which includes a 3,300 SF of capacity in its largest meeting room.
Although downtown, marketing of the Harwelden Mansion, 2210 S. Main St., “isn’t changing,” said Ken Busby, president.
The building’s maximum occupancy is about 150, he said.
“Because of the intimate nature of Harwelden and historical significance of the building, it has a different niche,” he said.
The BOk Center is marketed to people at an entirely different level in terms of size and focus of events, he said.
Harwelden stays busy, however, as bookings are running at a 75 percent clip, Busby said.
The BOk Center and enhanced Convention Center are making Tulsa much more attractive to convention business, Busby said.
“I don’t really see Tulsa expanding its convention/meeting facilities much further than it already has with the addition of the Renaissance Hotel and Convention Center,” he said. “Hotels will be able to offer additional meeting rooms for various breakout sessions, but the BOk Center should provide the facilities we need to maximize the convention tourism industry.”
Increased convention business combined with concerts at the BOk Center will generate a need for even more hotel rooms and restaurants to handle the increased volume of visitors to Tulsa, he said.
“And, when convention goers and concert attendees come to Tulsa, they will be wanting more dining and entertainment options,” Busby said. “The BOk Center should create a ripple effect that will give rise to the growth of the hospitality industry in downtown Tulsa, the Brady Arts District, Blue Dome District, Greenwood District, then moving out toward Cherry Street, Brookside and Utica Square.”
While the BOk Center will create a ripple effect, it is doubtful that the Center will put more pressure on the hospitality sector, Klukan said.
“Those kind of facilities alone typically draw local audiences that will spend money on concessions in the facility,” he said. “Facilities like BOk typically do not generate any significant hotel room nights or demand. Entertainment events like Celine Dion, other concerts and events do generate hotel rooms. While the headliners want and expect a high quality full service hotel, the crews performing set-up, sound and audio/visual normally use lower priced hotels due the budgets set by the promoters.”
Best Foot Forward
The area’s heritage is preserved through museums and historic sites, from Route 66, the Mother Road, to art deco downtown to Gilcrease Museum, which features the world’s largest collection of Western and Native American art.
Up the Mother Road 20 minutes northeast of Tulsa is Claremore and the Claremore Expo Center.
Since opening in 1999, the Claremore Expo has been the venue for many diverse events, said Lisa Towery, office administrator.
Today the Expo is the home court for the RSU Hillcats basketball teams.
The Expo has played host to concerts and trade shows. Also, there have been tractor pulls, motorcycle, bicycle and monster truck events. There have been dog shows, livestock auctions and equestrian events.
Blair, Expo Square’s marketing manager, summed it up for all the facilities: “We want to be the best we can be, which increases the economic impact on Tulsa.” ?