Why Yakima Needs to Improve Its Convention Infrastructure

The meetings and convention market is a crucial part of our local tourism industry and economy. It’s also important to other cities around the Pacific Northwest. Yakima competes with these cities to attract meetings. If we are to be successful in bringing and keeping conventions, we must maintain and improve our convention and hospitality infrastructure. If we don’t, we risk losing millions of dollars in revenue, taxes and jobs created by the convention industry.

Meeting planners review many factors when choosing a city to hold their event: location, costs, support infrastructure, surrounding attractions, activities, etc.  A recent survey of 398 U.S. planners conducted by the Kliman Group and Fulcrum found that the top three “destination strength elements that contribute to destination appeal” when choosing a city are lodging, air service and meeting assets (e.g. convention center). Yakima is largely a drive-to destination and while the City has made great strides in improving air service, it’s currently not a major factor for convention planners in our market. Quality lodging and the convention center, however, are crucial factors. The Yakima Convention Center has a stellar reputation for service, plus has had significant improvements since it was built. We must, however, do more if we are to remain competitive.

According to data we track, the primary reason for cancellations and groups not booking the Yakima Convention Center is due to a scheduling conflict with another group for the center (31%). The second most common reason was a lack of meeting or exhibit space for dates group desired (28%), followed by groups opting for a self- contained location, specifically at a hotel (20%). Collectively, these three reasons account for nearly 80% of lost convention business.

There is growing concern among current and past clients regarding the perceived lack of space at the center. Some of these groups have chosen other venues instead of the Yakima Convention Center, including Spokane and Tri-Cities, while others indicate they are on the verge of outgrowing the current Yakima facilities.

In 2015, the City of Yakima, with the support and involvement of the Yakima Public Facilities District, commissioned Kidder Mathews to conduct a market study on our convention center, lodging facilities and to assess competing markets. The researchers involved in the study have extensive experience in hotel and convention center analysis. Their study recommended that market conditions warrant an additional 51,000 square foot exhibit hall. As stated in their report, “By adding a dedicated exhibit hall to the Yakima Convention Center Campus, the city would create a definite competitive advantage over both Kennewick and Wenatchee. With the exception of the Spokane exhibit hall, Yakima would be the only facility with true exhibit space…. It would distinguish the new facility from alternative options in the competitive markets.”

The new exhibit hall would also increase the center’s scheduling flexibility, improving our ability to host multiple events and organizations concurrently. The added space would also allow the center’s sales team to target organizations that have outgrown the existing facilities. Both advantages would support efforts to recapture lost business due to capacity and scheduling, which accounts for 58% of total defectors.

Davenport Grand Hotel in Spokane, WA

Davenport Grand Hotel in Spokane, WA

Likewise, our headquarter lodging needs to be addressed. Last year, Spokane welcomed a new headquarter tower hotel connected to their convention center with more than 700 guest rooms, 60,000 square feet of meeting space and a parking garage. In the Tri-Cities, a new SpringHill Suites opened last summer, also connected to their convention center. In Wenatchee, the City recently sold land to a developer to build a 170 plus room Hilton Garden Inn along the waterfront next to an existing walkway to their convention center. These are our three main competitors.  We are losing conventions to these cities because of the condition and age of our headquarter hotel. Kidder Mathews recommends building a new headquarter hotel to replace the aging Red Lion. A number of scenarios and locations around the Yakima Convention Center Campus are being evaluated. Other possible hotel plans in the city core could have a bearing on the final configuration for the project.

Currently we are working with the City to secure an architectural firm to estimate costs and develop renderings of a center addition and headquarter hotel. This would help show what the vision could look like and assist us in advancing the project.

The Yakima Convention Center is a cornerstone in the health and vitality of Yakima. It currently pumps more than $11 million into the local economy. It brings visitors and locals to the city center, generates activity for partner facilities plus increases customers for businesses and attractions across the community.

I hope you will join me to work with the community, private and public sectors to ‘raise the bar’ and upgrade our convention amenities.

John Cooper

Yakima Valley Tourism