Austin feature - F&D Spring 2020

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Austin Convention Center



By George Seli

he spirit of cooperation has long been a force in Texas’ capital. From the government officials, financiers, architects and contractors behind the construction of the iconic Capitol Building in the late 1800s to the research labs and think tanks established in the 1950s, Austin’s leaders know that collaboration is key to achievement, whether architectural or intellectual. The city’s vibrant convention industry is another major achievement, and behind it lies the cooperation between two organizations: Visit Austin and the Austin Convention Center Department. Their synergy is not unlike that of the many great bands that call Austin home, and the result is music to a planner’s ears. “The Austin Convention Center Department [ACCD] takes a team approach and communicates daily with Visit Austin,” asserts Paul Barnes, Deputy Director – Chief 22

Operating Officer, ACCD. “This is done in a joint effort to discuss our clients’ needs and how to best provide for a successful experience in our city and at our facilities.

“Working in tandem with Visit Austin ensures that we can execute, down to the last detail, what clients want on the convention and services side.” —Paul Barnes, Deputy Director – Chief Operating Officer, Austin Convention Center Department FACILITIES & DESTINATIONS 2020 SPRING

We must understand our clients’ overall convention or meeting strategies so that we can best assist them. Working in tandem with Visit Austin ensures that we can execute, down to the last detail, what clients want on the convention and services side.” But the partnership between the two organizations begins well before the client service stage. The ACCD and Visit Austin “When a group also collaborate at the business has booked the development stage. Their teams building, our “do joint sales calls and site visits with clients,” notes Steve Genovesi, convention Executive Vice President, Visit service teams Austin. “We regularly review our work closely sales prospects and work together throughout to place as many programs as the planning possible into the building while maximizing the hotel rooms that process to can be occupied as a result. When ensure high a group has booked the building, customer our convention service teams work satisfaction in closely throughout the planning the city.” process to ensure high customer satisfaction in the city.” —Steve Genovesi, That satisfaction is at an Executive Vice all-time high, with nearly all President, convention center clients wanting Visit Austin to schedule another event at the facility, the ACCD reports. “We ask our clients to be honest and open as part of our post-event survey: ‘Would you schedule another event at an ACCD facility?’ They have responded with an overwhelming yes, with a 99 percent rating for 2019, and a 98 percent rating for 2018 and in 2017,” relates Barnes. “This motivates us to keep the astonishing return survey rating and to dive deeper with the 1-2 percent. We want to make them a better fit and have a better experience.” Robust repeat business accounts for part of Austin’s year-over-year growth in group business, which primarily includes large corporate tech, financial/insurance, medical and educational association meetings. “We enjoy hosting several repeat Texas association and Austin-based corporate meetings,” says Tom Noonan, President and CEO, Visit Austin. “These customers continue to be vital to our success as a meetings destination. These accounts find our city’s location (being in the center of the state) as a huge plus for their attendees to travel. The vibrancy and popularity of Austin as a getaway vacation within the state is also a factor, along with the convenience of a walkable hotel-to-convention center package.” FACILITIES & DESTINATIONS 2020 SPRING


Most clients, particularly those that are new to the city, want a locally flavored experience. Both Visit Austin and the Austin Convention Center are versed in delivering that experience, which is also an ingredient in customer satisfaction. “Many of our clients say there is a built-up excitement from attendees about coming to Austin — many have heard good things and are now visiting for the first time,” Genovesi relates. “So we’re asked a lot to provide ideas for an authentic Austin experience.” An example is the 2017 America’s Health Insurance Plans Institute & Expo. “We tried to incorporate music and local food specialties into our program. We really tried to infuse the Austin vibe into everything we created for our event,” says Elaine Powell, CMP, Director of Professional Education with AHIP. “We also met with Visit Austin to get their insight and assistance on booking local area musicians, and how to incorporate other ideas to infuse the Austin vibe into our event.” The CVB provided links to about 25-30 acts, from which AHIP selected six. Acoustic musicians complemented the exhibit hall during lunches and receptions, and a four-piece rock band performed at the closing General Session Luncheon. “We had the South Austin Moonlighters perform during our luncheon. They were terrific,” says Powell. “I also selected as much Austin-inspired/styled food and beverage options that the Center’s menus provided into all our functions.”


The Austin Convention Center is connected via overhead walkways to two hotels: the 800-room Hilton Austin and the 1,048-room Fairmont Austin. Across from the convention center, the Marriott Downtown hotel opens later this year with over 600 guestrooms. The Hilton and Fairmont room

Historic Sixth Street mural

counts are part of more than 11,000 downtown guestrooms, the result of an over 100 percent increase in rooms from 2013-2020. Just as Austin’s lodging infrastructure has greatly expanded, civic leaders aim to expand the convention center itself. The ACCD is working with the Mayor, City Council and City Management on the next steps. “The main goal of 23

Texas associations “find our city’s location (being in the center of the state) as a huge plus for their attendees to travel.” —Tom Noonan, President and CEO, Visit Austin

expansion will be to provide the necessary space to meet the demands of our clients, which is larger exhibit halls, more continuous and column-free space, and additional meeting room space,” says Trisha Tatro, Interim Director, ACCD. “We also want the expansion to be reflective of Austin’s culture, integrate advanced technological features, incorporate local businesses and restaurants, and appeal to the downtown and Austin-area community.” Currently, the ACC offers 374,278 sq. ft. of function space, including five column-free exhibit halls totaling 247,052 sq. ft., seven ballrooms ranging from 3,896 sq. ft. to 43,400 sq. ft., and 54 meeting rooms and show offices totaling over 63,000 sq. ft.


[divisions], each of them were extremely accommodating and personable,” Eastman adds. “Many of the staff knew my name and would say hi each day, which is a tribute to how well [ACC] staff connect with people in the facility.” Pre- and post-event service are also strong suits of the ACC staff. “Our team engagement does not start when they arrive. We manage almost every aspect and facet of operations, so our relationship with our clients starts months and years in advance,” says Barnes. “After each event, we meet with clients to discuss successes and how we can make their event even better, especially if it is specifically tied to the building and our staff. If the client had some concerns, this allows us to problem solve and potentially make changes before their next visit, or for future events similar in size and scope. It allows us to know what we did right, what is working well and what might work even better in the future. We also take the positives from our clients, along with feedback from the Visit Austin team and the Austin hotel community, who are always working to make the visitor experience the very best. We take this part of the event process extremely seriously as it ties directly back to our servant leadership system and ideology.”


The catering staff, managed by Levy Restaurants, is a cornerstone of client service at both the ACC and nearby Palmer Events Center. Exceptional client feedback led to the 85-member staff receiving Levy’s Spirit of Hospitality Award. “Making creative culinary concepts come true with superb

When it comes to the service at the ACC, no upgrades are needed. Clients are already enjoying the benefits of the “service first” culture that has been created at the facility, as Barnes describes it. “We do not outsource as many services as others,” he notes. “We are fortunate to manage 90 percent of our services, such as housekeeping, security, IT and exhibitor services. Much of our operation and services are provided by our in-house trained staff.” Importantly, the staff is empowered not only to serve, but also to lead and take ownership in clients’ experiences. They are proactive in resolving any issues onsite, as opposed to merely carrying out requests. “One of our main philosophies is servant leadership,” says Tatro. “By being servant leaders, we not only meet the needs of our clients and attendees, but it also helps us to better develop staff, which inspires them to perform at a high level.” Staff performance is based on skill as well as knowledge of the particular client’s Built in 1886, The Driskill is a landmark of Texas hospitality in downtown Austin needs. At the ACC, that information is disseminated staff-wide. “Our event went seamlessly, and it is service, menu and setup offerings really supports our desire largely due to the center and the knowledge each department to make the convention experience in Austin extraordinary,” had of our program specifications,” remarks Abby Eastman, Barnes comments. former Senior Meeting Planner at the National Association Creativity is based on inspiration, and the ACC team takes of College & University Business Officers. The NACUBO inspiration from its Southwest environment and culinary Annual Meeting was held at the ACC in July of last year. traditions. They work with more than 30 area vendors to Yet another aspect of the staff’s high performance is their procure local ingredients as a basis for popular items such as demeanor. “From the janitorial staff to the directors of the street-style tacos, smoked meats and Tex-Mex dishes. 24


familiarity with the convention center building, campus and immediate downtown area. In addition, the current City of Austin police staff has an strong presence downtown, a practice that helped Austin achieve a No. 8 ranking on Safewise’s 2019 Top 10 Safest Cities in America.


PCMA’s 2017 Convening Leaders saw record attendance in Austin

Sustainability and CSR are also ingrained into the F&B operations. Last year, 242,145 pounds of food was composted and 30,938 pounds of food was donated to homeless shelters. In addition, all services, except for plated meals, use sustainable disposable ware. That’s a significant reduction in environmental impact, given that the ACC hosts meal functions for up to 3,000 attendees in its Grand Ballroom.


Austin is a hotbed for tech startups, and so it’s no surprise that its convention center is technologically state-of-the-art. The gigabit-rated facility offers complimentary high-density Wi-Fi, redundant high-speed Internet II access (capable of bursting to 10 Gbps bandwidth), plug-and-play capabilities and free digital signage throughout. The ACC’s in-house tech staff, recognized with several state awards in technology, provides 24-hour service monitoring and service customization. Clients have a variety of different tech needs and challenges, so individualized service is critical. Consider a challenge faced by organizers of the Austin Boat Show in 2019. “We added bands this year and didn’t really know what we were doing when it came to the equipment we’d rented for sound,” relates Jennifer McKinney, Event Manager for the show. The ACC’s IT support analyst “was extremely helpful and available to make sure things went right. We couldn’t have done it without him.”

Austin also holds a very “We want the respectable No. 13 ranking on Cvent’s 2019 Top 50 Meeting [convention Destinations in the U.S., and center] extraordinary client satisfaction expansion to is part of the story behind the be reflective of booking numbers that secured Austin’s culture, that ranking. In tandem, Visit Austin and integrate the ACCD deliver a level of advanced client service that has been technological perfected over many years. features, [and] But the organizations are by incorporate no means complacent in this regard. The initiative to expand local the convention center is a case businesses and in point, but so is the drive to restaurants.” improve upon a given client’s —Trisha Tatro, experience year over year. Interim Director, “We never take our repeat Austin Convention business for granted,” Genovesi Center Department assures. “It’s why we’ve become so successful as a destination. After every event, we look to see how we can constantly improve and ‘up the bar’ for next year.”


Matching the tech staff’s level of expertise is the proficiency of ACC’s security staff, a vital service especially in this day and age. The security team members are former City of Austin police officers with over 100 years of combined experience, and each has a deep FACILITIES & DESTINATIONS 2020 SPRING

An aerial view of the renowned Austin City Limits music festival, held every fall in Zilker Park 25

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