How the PA Convention Center's Expansion snagged a new show
By Amanda Yeager and Kenneth Hilario, Philadelphia Business Journal
Questions about the reasoning behind Natural Products Expo East's impending relocation to Philadelphia compelled organizers to underscore their "very tough decision" had nothing to do with crime or negative perceptions of its current Baltimore home. It is a matter of accommodating the convention's growth and the expectations of its attendees.
"We really love the city of Baltimore as a destination — we almost couldn't imagine ourselves being elsewhere," said New Hope Network's Adam Andersen. But the expo had to resort to putting booths in hallways, setting up registration in an outdoor tent and holding events in other venues throughout the city in recent years as its attendance has grown. The next expo, scheduled for Sept. 12-15, is expected to draw nearly 30,000 people to Baltimore.
Faced with the need to expand, New Hope put out a request for proposals and decided on Philadelphia based on its proximity to Baltimore and similar demographics, as well as its much larger convention center, Andersen said. The group signed a four-year contract with the city that starts with its 2020 expo.
The Natural Products Expo East got its start in Philadelphia in the 1980s but has a long history in Baltimore, where it has been held, cumulatively, for two decades. Andersen said the event's size was already straining the amenities at the aging Baltimore Convention Center. When asked if safety concerns also factored into the decision, he responded, "Absolutely not."
The expo has "been to Baltimore, it's been to D.C., it's been to Boston, and always come back to Baltimore — and done better in Baltimore than most places," Andersen said. Organizers appreciated Baltimore's accessibility from other East Coast cities and its affordability compared with more expensive destinations like Boston and New York.
Andersen and New Hope Network were publicly supportive of Baltimore in May 2015, as the city saw riots sparked by the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. "We remain committed to the city of Baltimore, which has become, and will continue to be, our East Coast home," Andersen wrote in a blog post in response to the unrest.
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He has said New Hope would consider bringing the expo back to Baltimore once again if the city updates and expands the convention center, which was built in 1979 and last expanded in 1996.
The Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia underwent its own facelift and expansion in 2011, a $787 million project that added tens of thousands of square feet to the Chinatown facility. It now sits at 670,000 square feet. Compare that to its Baltimore counterpart – it has 300,00 square feet of exhibit space.
“This victory is a testament to the strong coalition of Philadelphia advocates, from the hotel community and their competitive pricing, to the Pennsylvania Convention Center and their commitment to enhancing the site, and our sales team cultivating relationships for nearly a decade,” said Julie Coker Graham, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The investment at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, as well as the 2014 change to work rules that many meeting planners found antiquated, are credited with turning the center around. Conventions that were once leaving Philadelphia, like Lightfair International, made an about-face and inked agreements to return to the city on multiple occasions.
Like with Lightfair, Philadelphia tourism officials are already looking to keep the Natural Products Expo East from heading back south on I-95.
“Adam [Andersen] and Brian Rubin have trusted us with the future of Natural Products Expo East, and we look forward to helping them to grow their convention in one of the country’s top media markets,” Coker Graham said. “We have a welcoming team and the resources in place to make Philadelphia your new home, as you attract new vendors and exhibitors.”
Meanwhile, Baltimore leaders will be working on its own plan to secure the expo's return, as well as recruit other events to the Charm City. For example, the Maryland Stadium Authority is looking at funding sources for a 400,000-square-foot expansion of the convention center, as well as a new, 500-room, full-service hotel to replace the Sheraton Inner Harbor. The project, which Mayor Catherine Pugh has called a "top priority," could cost as much as to $600 million and take five and a half years to build.