I used to think that convention centres were anacrhonisms in the digital age, and after spending too much time following Greenbuild from Boston to Phoenix to Chicago to Toronto, and hitting the Javits every year for ICFF, I might have agreed with Amanda Ericson at Atlantic Cities, when she asks Is It Time to Stop Building Convention Centers?
Then I went to Milan last month and realized I was wrong, and that Amanda is wrong, because in fact, until Milan, I had never really seen a convention centre. I was attending a show about machine tools, and it was not just a convention, it was a Woodstock of machine tools, more people, more stuff, more everything that you could imagine, all in one place, an industry lost in space, gathering in the 3.7 million square feet of convention centre that was another world. At which point one has to just come out and say that if you have not been to Fiera Milano, then you just don't know convention centres.
Javits in New York is just sad, that such a great city would subject people to such torture. McCormick in Chicago is a agglomeration of disconnected bits. Toronto is an apocolyptic underground bunker that would make a great set for a remake of Der Untergang. I speak as someone who knows convention centres from both sides; in an earlier career promoting prefab housing I was an exhibitor, lining up for the elevators in the snow in Toronto. Driving out to the suburbs on the Thanksgiving weekend to a converted airplane factory, wondering why I do this horrible job that keeps me from my family on important holidays.
Then I saw them as media, schnorring USB keys and coffee in crappy little dark press lounges.
And then I am whisked into Fiera Milano, a guest of Machines Italia. The media lounge is like checking into a seriously upscale hotel, and just about as vast. Glass roofs protect you as you walk between the halls that are of a really unimaginable scale, connected by a walkway between that rivals the Camino de Santiago in length, a pilgrimage between pumps and valves in one hall, plastics in another, wood in yet another. I knew how it must have felt to see a Corliss engine in 1876 in Philadelphia, to see the Crystal Palace in London, because I was in the modern version, a place of glass and steel in Milan that isn't even the largest; there are two in Germany bigger. McCormick in Chicago is a dismal seventh.
I know nothing about machine tools. But when I stood in front of one giant computerized router that could slice up and print out the entire stock of an IKEA store in a few minutes, I was in awe, and realized that five years of writing about the little CNC machine on the main street was a fantasy, that it was all dead wrong because this machine can do in seconds what that machine could do in a year. For all of my talk about how effective the internet is, standing in front of a machine the size of my house changed my views about an entire industry. You can't do this over the internet, you have to see it to believe it.
The problem with North American convention centres is that they are just too small, built incrementally with no over-arching concept, with lousy food and terrible access and miserable and unwelcoming spaces. Fiera Milano is in the middle of nowhere, but you can sweep in by high speed train. The restaurants are good. The design is coherent and connected. There is water and sunlight. I spent two days in it, looking at stuff that I didn't know much about and in a language I don't understand, but the coherence of it all just swallowed me up.
The reason I love coming to ICFF every year is that it is important to actually see people and stuff occasionally, and that shaking hands or sharing a beer matters. Sometimes actually seeing an object or a machine matters, rather than just seeing it on a screen. Putting them all in one place at one time creates a synergy. There is still a role for the convention. But people don't want to do that stuff in a pit; it is about meeting people and interacting with them and that needs a decent environment for both exhibitors and visitors.
To answer Amanda's question, is it time to stop building convention centers? No, it is time to build a decent one in North America. You can't keep them down in the basements of Javits after they've seen Milan.
See a slideshow of Fiera Milano Here: Do Convention Centers Make Sense? Visiting Fiera Milano Shows How It Can Be Done.