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Why New York's Plans For The Nation's Biggest Convention Center Might Be A Decade Too Late

Early this year, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced plans for the construction of the nation's biggest convention center (plus casino/hotel) in the New York City borough of Queens. With a planned 3.8 million square feet of exhibition space, the center has been billed as a way to make New York a raging hub of convention tourism and help it grab a larger slice of the $907 billion American-meetings-industry pie. It seems like a no-brainer. And it may well be—pejoratively speaking.

Despite America's love for giant structures, data from the last decade indicate that convening is on the wane. McCormick Place in Chicago—currently the largest center, with 2.6 million square feet of space—has seen attendance dwindle from 1.3 million visitors in 2001 to just 768,685 last year. The next three largest convention centers have also seen business plummet (see chart).

Is the recession to blame? Partly. But University of San Antonio professor Heywood Sanders, who studies the economics of convention centers, says larger forces are at work. "In the past 5 to 10 years, we've seen an enormous increase in supply of convention space," he explains. "But airline travel is more expensive and disruptive to a business than it used to be—and with technology, people are finding other ways to interact and exchange information." This oversupply and underdemand has created a zero-sum market. Explains Sanders: "The only way to get business is to take it from someone else, which is why you see people in the country giving space away."

Though a private developer, $43-billion-a-year Malaysian company Genting, is attached to the new New York center, the project is still being evaluated. Among its various hurdles is the fact that many trade-show organizers insist they will take their shows out of New York before going to Queens. (The organizers presently host shows in Manhattan's 840,000-square-foot Javits Convention Center.) And even conservative estimates have the center being at least seven years off—by which point a new 1.7-million-square-foot convention center will have been completed in L.A. as part of its new football-stadium plaza. So . . . want to hold your birthday party in Queens in 2019?

[Image: Flickr user Daniel Iam]

A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.