Dallas Works Toward a ‘Smart’ Convention Center

By Adam Stone

Convention centers represent a massive investment on the part of the cities. With millions of square feet under roof, they draw tens of thousands of users annually, driving economic activity and often shining a spotlight on downtown activities.

Most are also dumb as toast. Some convention center inventory dates back four or five decades, and while various waves of upgrades have improved their infrastructure, many still ride on a backbone of antiquated HVAC and telecommunications systems.

Executives at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center Dallas have a different vision. They say they are working toward a “smart” convention center, with the same kinds of tech-driven amenities and sustainability features being implemented by smart cities.

Dallas has good reason to be chasing smart upgrades: Convention centers are big business. San Diego’s facility claims a regional economic impact of $1.1 billion a year. New Orleans’ Ernest N. Morial Convention Center says it generates $170 million in taxes for city and state governments each year.

As a result, competition for convention center business is fierce. New York City just a spent a cool $1 billion to upgrade its facility.

“You always want to be the first, and you want to provide your client with the latest and greatest,” said John Johnson, assistant director of Convention and Event Services for the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center.

To that end, the Dallas center has some $21 million in enhancements underway, many of which will serve to “smarten” up the facility, whose bones date back to 1957, though there have been multiple upgrades along the way.

At the core of the enhancements is a telecommunications upgrade to be carried out by Smart City Networks, a digital communications provider for convention centers and hospitality venues.

Smart City plans to replace existing wired and wireless networks with a high-density design that will accommodate 64,000 simultaneous users on the network and deliver 10-gigabit connectivity throughout the facility. AT&T has signed on to put in place a distributed antenna system to deliver cellular connectivity throughout the facility.

The robust connectivity could form the supporting infrastructure for a range of smart city type additions.

“By upgrading the wireless systems and the data, that gives them the connectivity to enable smart technologies, whether it is sensors for lighting or sensors for heating and air conditioning,” said Mark Haley, president of Smart City Networks. “That’s all coming to convention centers, but we have to put in place this basic connectivity first.”

In fact, those are exactly the kind of changes convention center officials have in mind. They say the telecommunications upgrades are just the start, and that a range of advanced capabilities will follow.

First up: navigation. The convention center is more than 1 million square feet, and planners want to ensure visitors can find their way around.

“With denser [wireless] coverage, we could introduce a way-finding app, something that could give you turn-by-turn directions to get to your meeting room, or it could get you to the closest food and beverage outlet in the building,” Johnson said. Officials plan to implement a mobility services engine to make this happen.

Upgrades also are slated to include a data analytics product to help users of the facility get a handle on key statistics around their events.

“How many people came to the show? What were the hot spots? What booths were most visited? What exhibits did not get a lot of traction? We’d like to help them at the macro level,” Johnson said.

The upgrades may include automation enhancements. Motion-triggered escalators are a possibility, as are controls that would turn off lights when rooms are not in use. The facility is already LEED-certified, but planners say they would like to go further. Low-flow plumbing fixtures are on the books, and they are considering improved automatic building controls for the HVAC.

Convention center officials say they aren’t eyeing smart upgrades simply for technology’s sake. Rather, all the new features are intended to enhance the customer experience as the convention center vies for its share of business against dozens of other cities.

The telecommunications upgrades offer a clear example of this connection between enhanced technology and customer service. Johnson points to the not uncommon experience of a convention center user launching a new app as part of its event. When that happens, an older wireless network will struggle to keep pace with demand.

“Now if I have a large company come in and there are going to be 10,000 users downloading an app on their cellphones at one time, the network can handle that,” he said. “That’s a big draw for our customers. It’s just a better experience.”

A number of cities around the nation have incorporated smart-city and sustainability related features into their latest enhancements. Columbus, Ohio, is undergoing a renovation that will earn its LEED certification and incorporate digital signage. The L.A. Convention Center got waterless urinals in a recent upgrade. In Orlando, Fla., convention center operators upgraded from analog to IP surveillance cameras.

Still, the sheer size and scale of a convention center can make it difficult to get a smart-style upgrade on the books. Operators may be hard pressed to justify what some may see as an added expense.

“They are all thinking along the lines of smart city, but with convention centers it ends up being a pretty significant investment in addition to their other capital and maintenance programs,” Hayley said. “They are looking at this, but they need to do it in measured ways.”

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