Q&A with Acting President and CEO of the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority, John J. McNichol

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The start of a new year offers the chance for a fresh start and SMG’s commitment to improving operations management at the Pennsylvania Convention Center is one such opportunity. In this Q&A, Acting President and CEO of the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority, John J. McNichol, gives insight on the progress being made in improving the customer experience at the Center.

With SMG’s recent takeover, what’s next for the Convention Center?

The decision by the Convention Center’s Board of Directors to bring in SMG to manage the operations of the Center has been very well received by the trade press, stakeholders, and our industry partners. But it was only one part of a comprehensive strategy to make the Center more competitive and attract new business. The Board has identified four key focus areas that need to be addressed or improved upon if we are to successfully move the Pennsylvania Convention Center forward. Those four focus areas are:

1. Enhancing Operations Management
2. Improving the Existing Labor Supply Model
3. Addressing Concerns Related to Work Rules
4. Enhancing Billing Transparency

Bringing in SMG to manage the operations of the Center was in recognition of the fact that the convention and hospitality industry is global and highly competitive. Our customers have become increasingly more sophisticated and cost conscious when shopping for the best venue to host a convention, conference or trade show. Customers have raised the bar on expectations, and venues across the country need to meet and exceed those demands or risk losing critical opportunities for new and repeat business.

Have there been any significant changes just since SMG signed the contract?

We have made great progress in changing the structure of our labor supply model at the Center and are working with SMG to implement further changes to make the purchase of show labor more economical and easier to understand. This new approach takes full advantage of the Board’s decision last year to eliminate the 8 percent labor management fee that was previously used to fund the labor supply program. We now can demonstrate real savings to our customers on every hour of show labor and help meeting planners and show managers to more efficiently schedule labor.

SMG has already added significant bench strength to our preexisting staff, broadened our vision, and enhanced our ability to identify and react to emerging trends in the market. The large majority of Pennsylvania Convention Center staff has now transitioned over to employment directly with SMG – approximately 55 staff members, so far. I applaud the dedication of our staff and it is my understanding that the transition has been cooperative and collaborative. In many instances, people have been asked to shift or take on new responsibilities to meet our customers’ needs. I am proud to report that our former staff has lent new ideas to existing SMG procedures and policies while SMG has initiated training designed to equip our people with an expanded knowledge base and a better understanding of SMG and industry-wide best practices.

In addition, SMG’s operational presence in markets across the nation provides us with invaluable information on our customers and the choices they make. We now have an enhanced ability to intuitively understand our customers, anticipate their demands and build competitive packages to suit their business. SMG is also working closely with the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau to aggressively market the Center and highlight the Center’s new customer-focused approach. This reinvigorated joint marketing effort will also include participation by show labor both before and after major shows to make the customer experience more predictable and successful.

What are some realistic goals for 2014?

Our primary goal for the coming year – and the goal of our marketing partners at the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau — is to increase the number of bookings at the Center with a focus on shows occurring in the next two to three years. This will be a heavy lift given the cyclical nature of most major trade shows and exhibitor conferences. Most major shows book business on a 3 to 7 year rotation and beyond, so it will be challenging to secure major new shows during the next year. Our sales team will continue to work for short and mid-term bookings to fill the gaps and generate business – resulting in added hotel room nights and a boost to local business. Nonetheless, to be successful we need to demonstrate how the transition to SMG management has enhanced the customer and exhibitor experience.

We also need to show real progress on the four initiatives I outlined earlier. We have already begun to alter the labor supply model, making SMG directly responsible for working with labor on the show floor. That should address some of the finger-pointing and communication issues we have encountered in the past. Discussions with the labor unions as it relates to work rules have been ongoing and, frankly, one of the advantages of having SMG onboard is that they can point to their experience in facilities like Chicago and how work rule changes there resulted in additional work for union labor due to increased bookings.

Similarly, the board and SMG are working together to address the issue of billing transparency so our customers will know exactly what they are paying for. So I expect to see additional progress in all four of these areas in the coming year, which should put us in great position to attract new, large shows that will benefit the entire region’s hospitality industry.

In the end, our success will ultimately be measured by satisfied customers, repeat business and new bookings.

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