There's a new boss at the Convention Center.
Craig Stroud took over as executive director on August 1, coming from the Oregon Zoo where he headed operations. (That's all the stuff that keeps things going like ticketing, food service and concerts.)
He arrives at the OCC at an interesting time.
For one, the Hyatt Regency Portland is a 600-room hotel under construction across the street, which is expected to make life easier for conventioneers. No more staying at sketchy motels up the block or schlepping their wheelie bags back and forth to downtown hotels. The hotel broke ground in July after an epic struggle, and is set to open in 2019.
The second and more pressing item on Stroud's to-do list is the $35 million facility renovation project. It will include a number of exterior and interior improvements, including the demise of the scarlet and blue carpet (which somehow never attained a sentimental place in the locals' hearts).
Walking around the convention center on a recent afternoon, with 800 international vulcanologists coming and going, Stroud talks about the plans to make the place more inviting. The Holladay Street frontage will be remodeled to clear up confusion among people who try to enter the ranks of glass doors along Martin Luther King Avenue.
"The Holladay and King entrance are the entrances," he says. The current plaza, which is a series of steeped brick walls and planters, will be turned into a place where people will want to hang out, not pick their way through feeling lost.
Crisp and modern
The design of the interior renovation is by LMN Architects of Seattle, who have done a lot of work in the convention industry. Portland-based Mayer/Reed is the designer of the plaza.
"The new look will be crisp and modern," adds Stroud. The OCC was built in 1990, with the Oregon Ballroom as its grand feature. It was expanded in 2003, when the Portland Ballroom was added.
"There might be little alcoves that announce the (inside) entrances better. There will be facelifts for the frontages, the carpet and some other finishes that are dated. The new finishes will tie it all together and give a sense of place and branding."
He says LMN's design hints at the rain forest, the city's bridges, and the water. As he walks around, he points out blue skies visible through the glass roof, which from the outside are the signature glass spires. "This daylight is unbelievable. We're fortunate to have built (the OCC) from ground up, and not tried to fit it into a skyscraper that's (already) built. You look up and you see sky, not the wall of some downtown skyscraper."
Working during construction
Stroud's last job was as the Oregon Zoo's Deputy Director for Operations, which he did for five years.
Before that he headed up the bond program which saw the expansion of the zoo. This $125 million program led to a vetinerary medical center, a new penguin water filtration system, Elephant Lands and the education center.
"It was a lot of finance, capital management, learning about operations and guest experience, and managing the place all during construction."
That's one similarity: the OCC will remain open through the remodel, and noise and dust will have to be minimized so as not to hurt the one thing conventioneers want: a quiet, climate-controlled, clean and spacious environment.
At the zoo, he learned about project management, about land using planning during the master-planning phase. "We laid out a series of promises, via a series of projects. My job was to put the team in place to execute against that vision."
"There will be no shutting down the Convention Center. We'll figure out how to phase the work. So the skill is very transferable, I'm very excited about getting to those conversations."
Stroud has a touch of the Ted Wheeler about him, the friendly bean counter. A native of The Dalles, he studied business with a minor in accounting at Oregon State University. As a certified public accountant, he then worked in the Secretary of State's office for nine years, then at Oregon PERS HQ in the Tigard Triangle, before arriving at Metro (which runs the zoo and the Oregon Convention Center).
"At PERS, I was there at the PSIRP and Tier 3 implementation, when the legislature passed a retirement plan for new members. It was really exciting, there was a defined contribution and defined benefit component. We were learning and implementing on a tight time frame. I also worked with teams to implement a Supreme Court decision requiring the reallocation of benefits..."
He doesn't just geek out on finance. Customer service has become his other passion. He saw it at the Zoo, and having just arrived at the Convention Center has been gladdened to hear conventioneers praise the staff more than anything.
"There doesn't a day go by I haven't met someone who's been here 27 years or longer. I hear a lot of stories, maybe their first job was here and now they are manager of this service or activity. The people I interact with consistently tell me they love working here."
The Zoo earns 65 percent of its keep through enterprise activities such as ticket sales, concessions, concerts, Zoo Lights, the train and elephant ears. The other third comes from its tax base.
The OCC has the same size budget, $40 million, although it is more self-sufficient due to facility rentals and lodging taxes.
The Headquarters Hotel is funded by what he calls "Several pots of money: Metro is issuing $60m of revenue bonds, the Convention Center made a $4 million contribution, the state is giving $10 million in the form of lottery money, and the developer is putting up $150 million."
He stresses that the new hotel is a totally separate operation from the OCC remodel.
The upshot should be more conventions for the OCC, now that staying across the road will be the easy option. It won't be bigger conventions, because the capacity is not changing. A thousand or so for a one-day professional convention is about normal. Bigger consumer shows, which lure the local public, can bring in 45,000 people over a few days, such as the Rose City ComicCon and the auto show.
"I think there will be six to 12 more events, and more variety," he says.
Stroud makes the point that the Oregon Convention Center is supposed to be for the locals too, not just travelling business people
"We're not just servicing out-of-towners. We're a location where the community gathers for a consumer show or a cultural event. The mission of the center is as an economic generator and a place that contributes to the cultural fabric of the region."
Recently, they hosted a group of epidemiologists. Then there were the 800 vulcanologists. The week before were the world footbag or hackey sack championships (it's played like volleyball pairs).
OCC works with Travel Portland to get the word out. Most sales are done by planners two or three years out. They are already looking at the HQ hotel and 2019. Stroud's sales team often book the more local and consumer shows a little nearer the time.
"I'm told planners will see record attendances when they come to Portland, because nationally we're a desirable city to come to."
Other shows coming up include:
"There's an association for virtually everything," he says, impressed. "There may be just 40,000 enthusiasts around the world, but they find each other with technology and share and learn. The sky's the limit there."
The man whom Stroud succeeded, Scott Cruikshank, is now the Metro's General Manager of Visitor Venues, which included the Expo Center and Portland'5.
The Oregon Convention Center is owned by Metro and managed by the Metro Exposition and Recreation Commission.
"We report to Scott (Cruikshank). It's very collaborative. There's central finance, procurement and legal, all within the Metro umbrella."
As for the new hotel, Stroud says the OCC generates $800 million a year of economic impact, and they are forecasting that to rise to $1 billion when the hotel is up and running. That includes 2,000 construction-related jobs and 950 associated with running the hotel.
Does he trust the projections?
"That all depends on the assumptions and quality of the data. I've spent a lot of time around forecasting and financial analysis. We're not asking for the rosiest, unrealistic assumptions, we're asking for real analysis. I don't always believe in all analysis, but this analysis I am comfortable with."
The online version of this story has been corrected to show the developer put up $150 million not $50 million.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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Executive director Oregon Convention Center.