Dallas Is Betting on a New $2 Billion Convention Center to Make It a Meetings Draw

Rendering of new convention center

Skift Take

A new $2 billion convention center will be built from the ground up in Dallas, elevating the city to be able to compete with other major meeting and convention destinations. In a world of smaller gatherings, in this case, it makes sense.

Dallas voters approved a plan to build a new $2 billion, 2.5-million-square-foot convention center. When complete, the new convention center is expected to nearly double annual attendance and associated revenue for the city. Bigger than just the convention center, the project will create a new neighborhood as well as a convention district.

“This is such a big deal for us. The Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center opened in 1957. It is 65 years old and looks every bit of it,” said Craig Davis, president and CEO of Visit Dallas. “Customers have been telling us for years it’s not cutting it. This new convention center will make a seismic shift for us and what our future is going to be.”

Is a $2 billion convention center a good bet when large gatherings have shrunk post-pandemic? It is reported the city shells out approximately $1 million annually for tarps to cover its leaking roof and needs upwards of $700 million worth of repairs and renovations.

From Pittsburgh to Dallas

Davis joined Visit Dallas in January 2020 from Visit Pittsburgh, where he was president and CEO. He visited Dallas several times over the course of a few months as he was being recruited for the role. “I met lots of people and saw the city in its entirety but didn’t visit the convention center at that time. It was never dangled as a hook and wasn’t talked about,” he explained.

Six months into the pandemic, he got a call from a city partner with the news that the city would be getting a new convention center.

“We will now be able to attract groups that have wanted to use us and be able to host 95 percent of the groups out there,” said Davis. “We will also be able to attract much larger and higher paying customers.” In an era where smaller meetings are a reality, the newer center will also include 300,000 square feet of breakout rooms.

Raising the Funds 

The first phase of this massive project was creating a “project-financing zone,” a three-mile radius around the convention center where the city gets to keep both the state and local hotel occupancy taxes generated. This move will raise an estimated $2.2 billion over the next 30 years.

Additionally, Dallas voters approved a room rate increase in this November’s election to raise another $1.5 billion for the convention center and Fair Park, one of Dallas’ most historic venues. As a result, hotel occupancy taxes will increase from 13 to 15 percent.

Those who supported this increase emphasized that not only will a new convention center make Dallas more competitive in attracting meetings and conventions, but it will help revitalize downtown and the 277-acre city-owned Fair Park in South Dallas. The southern part of Dallas is one of the most impoverished parts of the city. A highway crosses in the middle, creating a barrier to growth which will be eliminated, and the entire area developed. “It’s going to create an entire new neighborhood,” said Davis.

A resounding 68 percent of voters voted yes to the plan.

The new convention center will include 800,000 square feet of exhibit space, 300,000 square feet of breakout space, and a 160,000-square-foot ballroom. Unlike the existing cavernous center, early renderings of the new center feature large, elevated ballrooms and outdoor event terraces with views of the Trinity River and downtown.

Expertise of Meeting Planners Will Help With Design

“The expansion of the convention center will give us the opportunity to consider Dallas as a destination for our future annual meetings,” said Jennifer Krsanac, CMP, director of meeting services for North American Spine Society. “Without the new expansion, the convention center did not provide our meeting ample space and adequate flow for our meeting attendees. I am excited to follow this project and its positive impact on the city of Dallas and the future of the meeting industry.”

Groundbreaking is planned for 2024, with completion set for 2029. Development around the convention center will include new restaurants, hotels, bars, music venues, and green space, creating an entertainment district that will connect with downtown.

“This new building and surrounding development are exactly what our customers need and have been asking for,” said D. Bradley Kent, Visit Dallas SVP and Chief Sales Officer. “Dallas is already a great meetings and conventions destination, with the accessibility of two major airports, affordable labor, and an outstanding hotel product. The new center and Convention Center District will enhance Dallas’ competitive position and put us on par with other destinations that have already invested in their buildings.”

In addition, 3,000 new hotel rooms will come online alongside the convention center. The project is now in the phase of procuring design, architectural, and engineering companies. A customer advisory board will help ensure all the amenities today’s groups’ demand are in place. “We will discuss what works well in other cities and what doesn’t work and use these ideas in our design,” said Davis.