Earlier today, HVS Convention, Sports & Entertainment presented the findings of the Convention Center Study Update. You can download the full presentation here. And, if you missed the event, you can watch it on our Facebook page by clicking here.

What follows is our analysis of the information. This article also appears in the June 2018 issue of LiNK Magazine.

The Case for a Montana Regional Convention Center
A Summary of the HVS Convention Center Feasibility Study Findings

The value of your network can’t be understated. Even in this age of technology, 1.9 million meetings were held in cities across the nation in 2016. This impacted more than 250 million participants which equated to 10% growth compared to the meetings industry in 2012. Also, in 2016, there was $330 billion in direct spending nationwide produced by meetings and conventions, up from $280 billion in 2012. (Source: U.S. Travel and Tourism Association)

Companies, corporations, associations, and meeting planners in general are interested in Billings as a place to meet and conduct business. Billings is the headquarters for business in Montana and the region. From energy and financial offices to education and healthcare offerings, Billings leads business and industry in the state and the region. Tourism plays right into this. We want to help them get work done in state of the art, progressive, entertaining, and meaningful ways. In many cases, planners simply need more to make the move to Billings.

Why Billings?

When meetings come to town, everybody benefits. The impacts of conventions, events, exhibitions, and trade shows ripple beyond the walls of meeting space and overflow into restaurants, retailers, and attractions. The face-to-face industry creates jobs, generates commerce, and creates a far-reaching regional impact.

In Billings, meetings offer huge opportunities for economic growth. Planners want to come to Billings. It’s Montana: Big Sky Country. The land of Lewis and Clark and access to Yellowstone National Park. While we do a good bit of business in meetings and conventions recruitment today, Billings is missing out not being able to host more events and play host to more business. Our community, our region, must think bigger. We must begin asking “Why not Billings?” This is an important conversation.

One Big Sky District offers our community a multitude of opportunities affecting Montana. Yes, Montana. Not just Billings or southeast Montana. Our opportunities in partnership with the Hammes Company are far reaching and significant. As leaders in the community, the region, and the state, the proposed catalyst of a Montana Regional Convention Center aims to offer an economic contribution the state hasn’t realized as of yet.

A Montana Regional Convention Center must be able to host people so they can move around, so they can meet other people, share ideas, and create an experience that impacts their lives and businesses. Meantime, it’s also what’s outside that matters. When attendees leave their meeting and find no entertainment options nearby, boom, momentum stops. Sure, Uber, Lyft, and taxis help soften the blow, but it’s important to foster the experience. Every. Single. Moment.

We know Billings is well-suited for this type of catalytic, regional development; several previous studies have proven that point. However, with One Big Sky on the horizon, the Chamber hired HVS Convention. Sports & Entertainment to update work previously done for Billings. HVS has a team of more than 300 people located in over 50 offices throughout the world who specialize in all types of hospitality assets, including hotels, restaurants, casinos, shared ownership lodging, mixed-use developments, and golf courses, as well as conventions, sports, and entertainment facilities.

HVS updated the Convention Center Feasibility Study done for Billings in 2015 and ultimately, we learned that things are happening exactly as HVS predicted they would without the addition of new, larger convention space. The 2015 Study said Billings would lose 25% of our meeting and convention business. Today’s study shows we’ve lost 24% of that business, and we’re on track to lose an additional 33% more business in the next five years. We’re losing market share and our competitors are booking business Billings used to compete for.

Late this spring, HVS released their updated study. Details show the strength of the regional economy and how the market benefits from a diversified employment base and low unemployment. It also mentions that Billings’ population and income are growing at or near national levels, and that wealth and spending trends indicate moderate economic growth for the region. That’s good news.

At the same time, other notes from HVS offer insight on genuine opportunities waiting for us to take advantage of and lead the way. Opportunities like:

  • Since the sudden decline of Billings’ air service in 2013, the level of service has remained relatively flat. Bozeman has increased air service, surpassing Billings’ annual passenger volumes.
  • Billings’ inventory of meeting space is limited. The condition of larger properties outside of downtown make them unsuitable for most events and downtown hotel properties have small amounts of function space.
  • The market lacks a convention venue with substantial exhibit, ballroom, and meeting space under one roof.

The above points aren’t surprising to us. All were trends reported in the initial study released by HVS in 2015, which offered similar notes to the Randall Travel Research released in 2010. Despite that it’s now 2018, little has changed in Billings.

Meantime, our competitors are forging ahead. In the newly released HVS Convention Center Feasibility Study it lists comparable venues. On that list:

  • Bozeman is currently evaluating the development of a conference center with 15,000 to 20,000 square feet of function space and an adjoining hotel.
  • Missoula recently announced plans for a mixed-use development, including a 10-story hotel building and 60,000 gross square foot conference center. Developers hope to break ground by late 2019.

Also on the list is actual convention space in Bismarck, Rapid City, Boise, Sioux Falls, Casper, Laramie, Cheyenne, Jackson and several Washington state communities. Some of these offer similar sized convention centers to what Billings offers now. Some are much larger. But most are either new, renovated, larger, or simply better and more attractive to meeting planners. And several are planning or already working toward significant growth.

Let’s Lead: The Time is Now

Without major improvements to Billings’ convention infrastructure, HVS states the above developments will erode Billings’ share of meetings, to the tune of 33% decline. This figure doesn’t include how attractive we are to meetings that are too large to be hosted in Billings’ current meeting space offerings. HVS talks current customers choosing to meet elsewhere.

Their suggested path forward recommends Billings build a 150,000 square foot convention center, offering 66,000 square feet of rentable space including a ballroom, a junior ballroom and breakout space. The remaining 84,000 square feet includes the lobby and pre-function areas, support space, general circulation and more.

What does this mean for Billings? HVS notes immediate economic impact of $13.2 million in direct spending as well as 136 new jobs. The study also shows the potential of an annual operating loss on a facility like this totaling around half a million dollars. However, as we learned in Allentown, civic event facilities such as arenas and convention centers can be profitable.

According to HVS, under a “do nothing” scenario, Billings’ ability to attract major convention and meeting events will diminish. That will impact our economy; local businesses. The ‘let’s do this’ scenario means, with responsible development, we complement existing hotels, entertainment venues like MetraPark, and lead the way for the region. Let’s lead. It’s important that we get excited and that we, as a community and region, plan to evolve, grow, progress, and develop – now.