When thousands of car hounds descend on the Miami Beach Convention Center for the 48th annual Miami International Auto Show on Friday, they will be among the first auto buffs in the U.S. to get a look at the 2019 Genesis G70, Hyundai’s latest luxury car, and the redesigned Toyota RAV4, the fifth generation of the popular compact SUV.
Auto Show attendees will also be the among the first locals to check out the amenities of the sparkling new Miami Beach Convention Center, which just wrapped the main phase of its three-year, $620 million renovation. The improvements include the addition of 263,000 square feet of space, 10 new meeting rooms and LEED Silver certification, which is granted to environmentally friendly buildings.
Some of the improvements are immediately obvious, such as the facility’s striking new exterior — a collaboration between Fentress Architects and Arquitectonica — that uses more than 500 giant fins of aluminum and glass to create an undulating facade, reminiscent of an ocean wave rolling onto the beach.
The aquatic theme extends to the center’s refurbished west entrance, with swooping curves, glistening white columns and subdued lighting that make the 60-year-old facility feel brand new.
Officials hope it will also help boost Miami-Dade’s $26 billion tourism industry, helping it to grab a greater share of the U.S. meetings industry, which generated $325 billion in 2016, according to an economic significance study by Oxford Economics.
One critical piece of the project, though, won’t be decided until Nov. 6. That’s when voters will decide whether to approve the construction of an 800-room headquarters hotel, to be built on a city-owned parcel of land adjacent to the convention center.
Miami Beach city officials say the massive upgrade to the Convention Center was critical to making the aging facility competitive in the crowded but lucrative convention industry.
“The old building had become more of a consumer show space which drew visitors from South Florida but not people staying in hotels in Miami Beach,” said Miami Beach city manager Jimmy Morales. “The building was old and lacked some things that could make it competitive for city-wide conventions and trade groups that draw tourists with spending dollars. We didn’t have a big ballroom. We didn’t have enough conference space.”
Ballrooms are no longer a problem at the convention center: It now has five, including a 60,000-square-foot grand ballroom — big enough to double as a cavernous dance club, complete with dramatic lighting — and a 20,000-square-foot, glass rooftop ballroom to host VIP events.
Infrastructure improvements include upgrades to the center’s notoriously spotty Wi-Fi and cellphone reception, the addition of digital signage, and stronger hurricane and flooding safeguards.
Overall, the renovation adds 263,000 square feet of space to the convention center, bringing the facility’s total to 1.43 million square feet. The size of the center’s exhibition space remains the same, at 500,000 square feet.
Compared to the biggest exhibition spaces in the U.S., the Miami Beach Convention Center is relatively small. According to Statistica, the list of the 10 biggest convention centers in the U.S. measured by exhibition space is topped by Chicago’s McCormick Place, with 2.6 million square feet of space. Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center is second with 2.1 million square feet, and the Las Vegas Convention Center is third with 1.94 million square feet.
But the Miami Beach Convention Center offers something none of its competitors can: A location that’s only two blocks away from the ocean, in the heart of South Beach and a stroll away from Ocean Drive — two of the top three most-liked features by tourists, according to the 2017 Greater Miami and the Beaches Visitor Industry Overview.
The 800-space, 5.8-acre parking lot located just west of the building is being converted into a park that will feature canopy trees, a public lawn and a plaza. The convention center will look out over the park, due for completion in 2019, adding to the facility’s intended tropical feel. The former parking spots have been relocated to the roof of the building.
Another park, covering 2.8 acres, is being added to the north side of the center. A total of 1,314 new trees will be added to the property.
“We now have a convention center that has a sense of place,” said Bill Talbert, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB). “Before, it was a box and you looked out onto an asphalt parking lot. Now, you definitely know you’re in Miami Beach.”
Built in 1957 at an original size of 104,000 square feet, the Miami Beach Convention Center, located just northwest of Lincoln Road and Washington Avenue at 1901 Convention Center Drive, has grown over the decades. The facility has hosted iconic events including heavyweight championship fights (Cassius Clay v. Sonny Liston in 1964) and Republican and Democratic National Conventions (both in 1972), and popular gatherings like the comic-book geek fest Florida Supercon, which will return in the summer.
The American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) was the first group to convene in the newly renovated convention center. An estimated 7,000 people attended the event, which was held Sept. 22-26.
Other confirmed upcoming conventions include the 10th annual Climate Leadership Summit (Oct. 24-25); the 24th Congress of the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (Oct. 31-Nov. 4); the Miami Beach Antique Show (Jan. 27-29), the fabrics and engineered materials expo IDEA19 (March 25-March 29); and the FIBEGA International Gastronomy Tourism Fair (May 10-May 12).
Also returning: the 17th edition of Art Basel Miami Beach (Dec. 6-9), the largest contemporary art fair in the U.S., which drew a record-setting 82,000 visitors from around the world with its 2017 edition, according to Greybrook Realty Partners. Art Basel is signed to return to the Convention Center until 2023 and holds an option to remain at the venue from 2024-2028.
“The Miami Beach Convention Center has been a terrific home to Art Basel in Miami Beach since our first show in 2002 — and we’re so pleased to present our 17th edition in the brand new state-of-the-art facility,” said Noah Horowitz, Art Basel Director Americas. “The renovation allows us to completely reimagine our layout, design and visitor experience.”
A convention hotel
But the question remains whether the Miami Beach Convention Center can fill its annual calendar with “city-wide conventions” — events that require around 1,500 hotel rooms, impacting all of Miami-Dade — and much of that rests on voters approving a headquarters hotel on Nov. 6.
“This is not a convention center that is going to have 100 conventions a year,” said Rolando Aedo, chief operating officer of the GMCVB. “The AHIMA convention was only three days, but they were working for weeks in advance to set up the exhibits. For us it’s about quality, not quantity. Our focus is on conventions that draw in the 3,000-4,000 range, not 20,000-25,000 people.”
The renovation is the first major facelift the Beach convention center has gotten since 1989, when a $92 million makeover expanded the facility’s capacity to its current four halls. Tourism officials began clamoring for another refresher a decade later. An attempt in 2013 to expand the building by adding a hotel and retail spaces — at a cost of $600 million in public funds — was derailed by a campaign led by Miami Beach Commissioner Jonah Wolfson.
A new renovation proposal, which eliminated the controversial hotel element, was launched in 2014. The project was paid for by government bonds funded by various sources, including hotel and county property taxes and parking revenues.
But now that the makeover is done, the need for a hotel persists. Aedo estimates that 28 city-wide conventions per year would achieve optimum usage of the Beach convention center. But that number is not attainable, he said, without a headquarters hotel.
According to the GMCVB, Miami-Dade has lost out on $130 million in potential hotel expenditures by nearly 201,000 attendees of conventions that bypassed Miami Beach due to a lack of a convention center hotel. The list of lost conventions includes IBM, the Cardiovascular Research Foundation, the American Academy of Dermatology, and the Mortgage Bankers Association of America.
The lack of a hotel has been a longstanding — and sometimes embarrassing — thorn in the facility’s side. In 1994, actor Michael Richards, best known for playing Kramer on “Seinfeld,” showed up at a fancy reception during the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) convention wearing a blue bathrobe, claiming the “luxury hotel” where he was staying had failed to return his suit from the cleaners in time.
But in 2011, the city of Miami Beach lured NATPE back from Las Vegas and New Orleans, and the group has held its annual conference here since then. The event will return next year, from Jan. 22-24.
First, though, is this weekend’s Miami International Auto Show, which returns after skipping 2017 — the first cancellation in its 48-year history — due to Hurricane Irma. An estimated 350,000 people attended the 2016 edition, despite the Zika virus scare.
“This is the first show we’re having in two years,” said Rick Baker, Auto Show manager. “They are still doing cosmetic touches, but we will have access to 90 percent of the building. It’s a beautiful, state-of-the-art facility. There will be kinks for this first year, but we’re still excited for the show.”