First year tough in getting support from community, counterparts say

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 17, 2003

There’s laughter to Larry Gaweroski’s voice as he remembers when, in the mid-1990s, he was responsible for marketing a convention center that hadn’t even gone online yet.

Literally &045; he was the only one marketing it.

&uot;We didn’t have a salesperson until a couple of months before we opened (the Vicksburg Convention Center),&uot; said Gaweroski, the center’s executive director and a C.F.E., or certified facility executive.

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&uot;I wore out shoe leather, traveled from Tunica to the Coast, Tupelo to smallest hollers&uot; selling the facility to meeting planners, he said. &uot;We were literally the one-legged man in the butt-kicking contest.&uot;

But Gaweroski said his starting out solo actually helped sell the center. &uot;It put a personality to this building, almost like a politician campaigning,&uot; he said. &uot;If you mentioned the convention center, they’d say ‘Oh, yeah &045; that’s Larry.’&uot;

His sales pitch? &uot;You need space, and I need business. Let’s talk.&uot;

That all-out selling strategy would come in handy, for Gaweroski figured he had three markets to persuade.

First, he had to educate the local market about the center’s main objective &045; to get the large events into town to put heads on beds at hotels and bring out-of-towners to shops and restaurants.

&uot;It (the center) had an aura of mystery about what we do and what it would be,&uot; he said. &uot;Everybody thought it would be a place to have your wedding reception or card party. And we do that, but it’s not our primary target market.&uot;

In addition, he had to educate the public on the fact that the center would not turn a profit. Instead, its purpose would be to draw conventions to town that would make an economic impact on the whole area.

&uot;We couldn’t possibility charge enough (for facility usage),&uot; he said. &uot;If there’s an entity (in a city) that takes a loss, it’s the convention center.&uot;

Next, Gaweroski said he had to make the center known to the &uot;corporate occasional user &045; those who use it once and you never see it again.&uot;

But Gaweroski said he really &uot;worked like a dog&uot; to get Mississippi’s meeting planners interested in bringing statewide conventions to the center.

&uot;We were almost behind the eight-ball, with a two-year lag to build&uot; when Gaweroski started to market the facility. He noted &uot;most (associations) book one to five years out.&uot;

Gaweroski ran ads in trade magazines like &uot;Meeting South&uot; and &uot;Affordable Meetings&uot; &045; &uot;everything you would expect,&uot; he said.

But he also made sure he met meeting planners throughout not out Mississippi, but nearby Louisiana and Arkansas and, to a lesser extent, Tennessee and Alabama. &uot;We wore out some shoe leather,&uot; he said.

The first year the center was open, Gaweroski didn’t know what to expect when it came to the number and types of bookings. &uot;We had nothing to go by. It was a beta year,&uot; he said.

By the time Gaweroski left the convention center in 1997 &045; he moved back in 2001 as an employee of center management company Compass Facility Management &045; the center had more than 250 bookings.

Now, more than 50,000 patrons cross the center’s threshold every year, and it generates an estimated 225 event usage days and 5,000 to 10,000 hotel room nights each year, according to Gaweroski.

What does that mean in dollars and cents?

&uot;When a 500- to 600-person event is in from outside of town and filling hotel rooms, it can mean $1 million to $2 million in economic impact,&uot; said Gaweroski, whose facility targets conventions from 150 to 750 people.

But the key to bringing in those numbers is the same as it was when the center opened its doors &045; pounding the pavement &045; said Gaweroski, who now has two salespeople.

&uot;No matter what resources you have,&uot; he advised, &uot;spend majority of it on personnel.&uot;

Rick Taylor, director of the Hattiesburg Convention and Visitors Bureau as well as that city’s convention center, can share similar notes.

Built in 1998, the Lake Terrace Convention Center hosted more local events than out-of-town conventions in its first year, Taylor said.

&uot;We did end up exceeding what our expectations were,&uot; Taylor said.

Taylor began marketing the center to potential groups well before its opening. He and his staff focus on regional events because most convention goers drive to the Lake Terrace Center.

One of the biggest challenges for Taylor, like Gaweroski, was convincing the community why the convention center is there &045; it’s an economic development tool, not a community center. The first year, he said, it was difficult for residents to see the importance of a center that wasn’t exclusively used for them.

&uot;It’s always a tough start,&uot; he said. &uot;You’re dealing with a totally new animal.&uot;

Over the years, Taylor has been able to forge an understanding with community groups. For example, the Lake Terrace Center hosts weekly meetings of the local Kiwanis Club.

But the club knows that &045; with three months’ notice &045; Taylor can bump the group for an out-of-town event that puts the coveted &uot;heads on beds.&uot;

&uot;That was far enough along that people knew the focus of the center was economic development,&uot; he said.

Taylor sees the advantages Natchez has in marketing a convention center in a town already known for tourism.

That’s because it’s not just the convention center staff that has to market a community &045; it’s the hotels and restaurants, too, Taylor said.