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Convention Center

Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center during construction | photo courtesy Experience Columbia SC

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If you build it, they will come.

Remember when it was announced that Columbia is hosting part of the 2019 NCAA men’s basketball tournament? How did we swing that? Will it happen again?

Columbia has a lot going for it – now more than ever – with growing, walkable downtown districts; a top university (with champion sports teams + impassioned fans); an airport (s/o to CAE); outdoor attractions + more. Last year, Cola saw 14.7 million visitors, and that number is only expected to grow. There’s no denying that here at COLAtoday, we love celebrating all the good and all the growth that’s in our city.

But if we want to keep attracting huge sporting events like the NCAA championship – and other events like Taylor Swift or Kendrick Lamar concerts, big industry conventions, political conferences + national company meetings, we need to work on a few things.

A few weeks ago, we sat down with Carl Blackstone, President and CEO of our partner Columbia Chamber, to talk about how competitive Cola is in attracting headliners like this. Consider the knowledge bombs officially dropped. Biggest takeaways:

  1. We need a big, full-service hotel downtown.

A true “full-service” hotel = at least one cocktail lounge and restaurant, spas, banquet rooms, meeting rooms, dry cleaning + valet service. Think: names like Westin, W Hotels, St. Regis, etc.

We have 5 downtown hotels tagged as full-service, but the largest is the Columbia Marriott at 300 rooms. The others only have ~100-200 rooms each. (It took several hotels across Columbia to meet the NCAA tourney’s minimum room requirement.)

The problem with this? The Chamber says a lot of organizations, like professional sports teams and large industries (say, insurance, for example), look for full-service hotels that can conveniently house 400-600 people under the same roof – and for multiple events. One big hotel serves as the one-stop-shop cocktail reception venue, breakfast banquet, keynote address, class auditorium, gym, sit-down-dinner gala + lodging.

Columbia could not be considered for big events just because we don’t meet this need.

Plus: bigger hotel = bigger economic impact. It all comes down to the phrase “heads in beds” when talking about how our region makes money from accommodations tax + hospitality tax. As the Chamber put it: Conventions are a freebie. They bring people in, people spend money, then they leave.

Can’t picture this type of hotel? Let us present: #hotelgoals:

Where would it go?

This larger hotel would also need to be in true walking distance from downtown Columbia – not off Broad River Rd., Two Notch or Harbison. Got any ideas?

How do we get it?

The reason we have so much student apartment development is because the City of Columbia incentivized that type of development for a specific time period. Meaning, they offered a specific deal (i.e. X% off property taxes for X amount of years) if the developer was building housing for students. And love it or hate it, it worked.

Is a big, full-service hotel something the City should incentivize?

  1. We need a bigger convention center.

At 24,700 sqft., the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center is the smallest center of S.C.’s major cities, and it’s stopping us from winning bigger conventions, exhibits + trade shows, according to Experience Columbia SC + the Chamber. It needs to be expanded – ideally up to 100,000 sqft. As for funding, building the center in 2002 was a giant collaboration. Currently, there’s no solid expansion development/funding plan in place.

Convention Center

Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center during construction | photo courtesy Experience Columbia SC

The increase in convention space and the need for more available hotel rooms go hand in hand, according to Bill Ellen, President & CEO of Experience Columbia SC. One cannot happen without the support of the other.

What other ideas do you have on how Cola can become more competitive? 💪

All this being said, we’re still thankful for our many smaller full-service and limited-service hotels – and for boutique hotels, like the former Inn at Claussen’s (RIP) and the coming-soon Hotel Trundle (can’t wait for this).

There’s a market for bigger and smaller hotels, and as an up-and-coming city, we need both.

Chloe + Beth