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TOURISM—The Name Game



Convention Venues Search for Sponsors

At first, corporate name sponsorship seemed to be a game for just arenas, stadiums and other sports venues, with major deals such as Federal Express Corp.’s $205 million sponsorship of Washington, D.C.’s FedEx Field football stadium. Now, convention venues are suiting up for similar sponsorship plays. Among them is San Diego.The San Diego Convention Center Corp. soon will make a pitch to local, regional and national companies, putting on the bidding block the naming rights to the San Diego Civic Theatre and the Convention Center’s Sails Pavilion. The decision to seek naming sponsors for the Sails Pavilion but not the entire convention center was deliberate, said spokesman Fred Sainz. “We certainly have taken a look at it,” Sainz said. “Given that our reputation has been established as the San Diego Convention Center, and we’re very proud of our name, we’re not ready to take what we consider a fairly large step by selling the naming rights to the entire convention center.” The Civic Theatre sponsorship would go toward a $15 million to $25 million renovation of the building, which opened 35 years ago. Funds from the Sails Pavilion naming rights will go toward the Convention Center Corp.’s operating budget. Other cities also have used the funds for purposes, such as marketing, general operation needs and construction , whether new buildings or major renovations, like San Diego.


Supplementing Cash Flow

According to Jack Zimmer, president of the Coppell, Texas-based International Association of Assembly Managers, it was a matter of time before convention venues entered the sponsorship name rush. “Chasing the almighty dollar creates creativity amongst us all,” Zimmer said. “The stadiums and arenas seem to be the ones that have perfected the naming rights game plan. We no longer have stadiums or arenas named after the city or something special, it’s named after some sort of a corporate sponsor, and it’s a multimillion-dollar deal.” First it was the Midwest Express Convention Center in Milwaukee, which began looking for sponsors in 1996 and landed a $9.5 million, 15-year deal with a hometown-based airline. Soon to follow were names such as the Touchstone Energy Place in St. Paul, Minn., and Midwest Wireless Civic Center in Mankato, Minn. Now, Cincinnati’s Albin B. Sabin Convention Center will be renamed after Delta Airlines, and the Fort Lauderdale/Broward County convention center’s management has narrowed their finalists down to three companies , a health care corporation, an automotive manufacturer and a major publication. Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center, among the country’s largest trade show venues, recently announced its interest in exploring the possibilities of a naming sponsor. The process has become much more sophisticated, with centers hiring firms to evaluate their sponsorship options and later solicit and negotiate with potential sponsors. In San Diego, the Convention Center Corp. hired the Bonham Group, a Denver-based sports marketing firm, in May to evaluate its properties.


A Big Deal Locally

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Some of the bigger deals in the convention industry have played out to about $500,000 a year, noted Matt Yonan, Bonham’s vice president for sales and marketing. He sees much bigger numbers in store for San Diego. “You’ve got here an unbelievable facility, No.1,” Yonan said of the Sails Pavilion. “It is a noted part of the San Diego skyline. It’s extremely unique and it’s in a great market.” He later added, “We think sponsors will bite on this, without question.” The San Diego properties are also more attractive because the convention center and the Civic Theatre are what he delicately described as “virgin territory” to sponsors. Both facilities have not signed any previous promotional deals, he said. “We’re giving our sponsor the chance to be the first to develop a relationship, so it will be a very exclusive-appearing relationship where their presence will be felt throughout,” he said. Negotiations will likely involve in-kind services as well as cash, Yonan said. As far as demographics, Yonan describes the Sails Pavilion market as high income and a more business-to-business opportunity. The Civic Theatre, with its cultural component, is “extremely high-end,” he said.


What To Offer

At first, Bonham and the Convention Center Corp. discussed what they would offer a sponsor in terms of signage, visibility and product placement, Yonan said. Now, behind closed doors, the talk will turn to limitations , what the Convention Center Corp. is not willing to give up, he said. That plan can change during the sponsor search, said Mary Sienko, marketing director of Touchstone Energy Place. Her organization had originally planned to find naming rights for its center’s ballroom, and some meeting rooms, lobbies and walkways , but a consultant found an energy consortium that wanted naming rights to the whole convention center and a deal was struck, she said.


Service-Oriented Business

One major concern in dealing with a center’s whole name has been that it might deter competitors in that industry from bringing their conventions to San Diego. It was one reason why the idea seemed off-limits at first, said Sienko.However, Yonan, Sienko and others say it hasn’t been a problem.”It’s not that kind of business,” said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.Her organization, in the midst of its search, considered the issue. “When companies name an arena or a stadium, you’ve got some control over who your concessionaires are, and you can control those product issues, but this is not a product business,” Grossman explained. “This is a service business.” The amenities and service capabilities of the destination, she said, “far outweigh consideration by potential meeting clients than the name on the building.” In soliciting sponsors for San Diego, Bonham plans to keep the options open, Yonan said. “You never know what kind of companies there are that are focusing in that particular region but really are national companies,” he explained. “Obviously, San Diego and California are rich in corporate targets,” Yonan continued. “So at this point, we’re still developing that list and that strategy on who exactly we’re going to be contacting, but we are going to be casting a pretty wide net.”

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