Titanic Belfast

When the idea of the World’s Fair took off in the mid-19th century it sparked a golden age of magnificent venues, their grandeur testament to the significance of bringing together the leading lights of international society for a major event. From London’s Crystal Palace to Philadelphia’s Memorial Hall via Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building and the Grand Palais of Paris, these venues were key to elevating the host city’s global profile while offering a vision of what the future might hold for the meeting industry.

Fast-forward a century and a half and much of the vision has materialized, with a solid meeting facility a cornerstone of most major cities. In the 21st century’s hyper-connected and increasingly urbanized world, however, one where international gatherings have become a rule rather than an exception, a new set of demands is being placed on facilities that is spawning a second golden age of venues with very voguish design expectations.

Three showcase examples—the Titanic Center in Belfast, Northern Ireland, opened in 2012; the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) in Seoul, South Korea, opened in 2014; and the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio, Texas, scheduled to open in 2016—reveal many core values of the design zeitgeist as well as an understanding of how contemporary meeting facilities can do so much more than simply facilitate meetings.

Triggering Transformation

A recurring feature of many modern venues is their ability to define and transform a neighbourhood or even an entire city, with a common trigger to help deliver this being a design rationale strongly rooted in the location’s sense of place.

“Several years before the centenary year of Titanic’s maiden voyage, Titanic historians, societies, and business and leisure stakeholders recognized the need for Belfast to not only mark the anniversary, but to take ownership of Titanic, as Belfast was the city that built the legendary liner,” said Alex McGreevy, media relations executive at the Titanic Center Belfast. “Several ideas were considered before it was agreed that a permanent exhibition and visitor attraction would offer the city and tourists to it the experience of visiting the birthplace of Titanic. Titanic Belfast would be a unique Titanic visitor attraction—the biggest in the world—and in cementing Belfast as the birthplace of Titanic, it would transform the city as a tourist destination.”

Renowned U.S. architect Eric Kuhne was tasked with delivering this transformation and executed it through five purpose-built event spaces within a sculptural building evocative of the Titanic’s encounter with an iceberg and sinking on its maiden voyage. The cogency of the venue’s iconic design is further enhanced with events at the center being able to make use of the adjoining slipways and plaza area within its dockyard setting, part of a broader regeneration area in which the venue has become the leading light.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza
Dongdaemun Design Plaza / Credit: MCST Korea

On the opposite side of the world, Seoul’s DDP was taking a similar approach for bringing a new venue to a historic neighborhood of the city that had lost some of its previous luster.

“The Dongdaemun area has been a hub of commerce for some time, containing a high concentration of wholesale and retail clothing merchants, and the neighborhood is immersed in Korea’s modern and contemporary history,” explained Inhye Bae, PR executive at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza. “However, in the second half of the 20th century, the growth of the area began to slow down and from 1999 to 2004 Dongdaemun Forum, a civic group, expressed the view that the old stadium [on the site] should be transformed.

“DDP planned to take the initiative in this by raising the brand value of the Dongdaemun area as a whole, thereby achieving shared growth with the nearby commercial communities,” she continued. “As a consequence, it would improve the image of the Dongdaemun area and even the image of the city of Seoul and, furthermore, we expect the so-called ‘DDP-effect’, meaning the Dongdaemun area will profoundly improve its image and street aesthetics and thereby reduce its cultural gap with the relatively affluent Gangnam (southern Seoul) area through hosting various cultural events at DDP.”

The design solution for the initiative lay in engaging global “starchitect” Zaha Hadid, whose breathtaking, futuristic venue strongly references the area’s long-established design heritage, and with more than 86,000 square meters of event space set across five facilities comprising 15 separate spaces, it has quickly become a catalyst for a huge revitalization of the surrounding area and is already a modern landmark of the city.

Again on the pulse of transformative potential, the plans for San Antonio’s Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, developed by international design firm Populous, involve a site reconfiguration and transformation of 90,000 square meters of event space that is central to a much wider regeneration project within its HemisFair Park setting, itself once the location of a World Fair for the North and South Americas. Having over time become dominated by a mix of incongruous buildings, the relocation and expansion plan for the convention center will release a new park and provide a high-spec facility for the site within a completely regenerated downtown area, with the new event space set to be cantilevered out over two lanes of the adjacent Market Street to engage intimately with the city and invite the city to engage more intimately with it, too.

“The whole area is going through huge change with the HemisFair Park redevelopment, so I think that in San Antonio, where we will be celebrating our 300th birthday in 2018, the goal is to really enhance this whole area,” said Patricia Muzquiz Cantor, assistant director of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. “Not only are we going through a transformation, but the park surrounding the convention center is going through huge redevelopment, too, and there are also several other locations, mainly a block away, that are being renovated—there’s a lot of things changing and a lot of regeneration that’s going to happen in the next year.”

Better by Design

With contemporary venues now seen as a genuine force for city transformation, there has been a shift in design thinking behind them, too, one that goes right to their very operational heart and out far beyond the iconic facades they present to the world.

“We can’t think of these buildings just as a piece of architecture anymore, because they need to do so much more for their cities,” said Populous’s Michael Lockwood, lead designer behind the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. “I think that the history of convention center design has been very formulaic; they have often been boxes in the cities and sometimes placed on the edge of a development or urban core, but people in general are becoming more appreciative of what an iconic piece of architecture can do for definition, and I think they are becoming better versed in architecture and design around the world.

“So we’ve been really digging in to what attendees, convention guests, and meeting planners are all looking for, and our research is really benefiting the city that we work in, because they don’t have the benefit of being able to go out and understand the current market like we can,” he continued. “All of our clients want an iconic building, and I try to change the conversation to prioritize the experience first, to say that we will develop an iconic experience for your city, and then the building will come.”

Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center
Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center / Credit: Populous

In reaching their end design via an understanding of how to create an iconic experience, the team at Populous has developed an approach to venue thinking with three distinct “flavors”: destination, district and diagram.

“For us, the destination aspect for the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center was San Antonio as a whole, so the why somebody would consider or actually make the decision to go to that place and what is has to offer,” Lockwood said. “We look at air travel, the experience of the airport to the convention center, hotels, cultural amenities, and all of those things that would really enrich an event in that place.

“Then we look at the district, which is different for every city and dependent on the size of the facility and its location in the city,” he continued. “It could be the immediate property or one or two blocks in each direction, but we look at what is that district that is most likely to influence the attendees’ experience after or before the show, or walking to or from the building.

“From both of these we then look at the ‘diagram’ [of the building] itself,” Lockwood said. “It’s got to have that flavor of the place, and that’s why at San Antonio we’re really happy with the design, because we ultimately developed an icon, but we didn’t set out to—we set out to develop a really powerful experience for the guests. We always start with functional diagrams way before we do the architectural diagrams, so by the time we get to the architecture it really just starts to reveal itself and that becomes the icon. We’re celebrating the functionality of the building, which creates great architecture, and by the time that our designs are presented everybody is on board.”

Stressing Success

Contemporary, iconic meeting facilities of this type unashamedly aim to be hugely successful, yet in doing so they also attract some of the stresses of success that come with the need to manage them.

“DDP opened in 2014 and has reached 6.4 million visitors so far,” Bae said. “This means, on average, 25,000 people have visited DDP per day! It is attracting not only people from Seoul, but tourists from all around the world.”

Titanic Belfast is now a “must-see” among visitor attractions in Ireland and the response to it in terms of visitor numbers and media focus endorse the concept of a world-class visitor attraction for Belfast and Northern Ireland, McGreevy said.

“Before its third birthday in March 2015, Titanic Belfast will have welcomed more than two million visitors from 145 countries, with a recent, independent survey suggesting that 97 percent of visitors to Northern Ireland included Titanic Belfast in their plans.

“Our challenge as a major visitor attraction and iconic image of Belfast and Northern Ireland means we have to maintain the highest standards every minute of every day, from visitor experience to hospitality and housekeeping to facilities,” McGreevy continued. “All of these departments are therefore trained to World Host level and we have catered for a host of VIP guests since opening, including Queen Elizabeth II, former U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and several visiting dignitaries, such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as part of the G8 meeting held in the country.”

Perhaps some higher levels of managerial stress from an elevated profile, but ultimately today’s meeting facilities are heralding a new era of international landmarks that in benefiting the area or the city in which they operate also benefit from increased levels of success for themselves, too.

“With the new building we’re getting better, so our efficiency standpoint is one of the things we’re really looking forward to,” Cantor said. “To add to that is also that having exhibit halls without columns will give us the opportunity to attract some bigger conferences and meetings to our facility. We have seen interest from groups that we normally haven’t been able to attract due to the size of our convention center, so we’re seeing particular events much interested in our new space. Right now we have about 320 events per year, and we’re expecting that to grow by about 10 percent.

“By the sheer aspect of having a cantilevered room over Market Street, the folks that are maybe down the road but not necessarily attending an event in the center, might be interested to know what that is and bring them down that way,” she continued. “We have so many hotels close by, within a one-mile radius, and I think the cantilever is something that everyone will get to know and will definitely direct our visitors to the convention center. It is something that everybody will recognize.”

Today’s new venues are increasingly becoming instantly recognizable icons, and recognizable, too, is that the industry is in the throes of serving up a whole new era of magnificent venues. FM

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