With an international epidemiology conference wrapping up this week, the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center appears to be hitting its stride in bringing big name conferences to the Midlands.
The 24th annual meeting of the International Society of Environmental Epidemiology is being held this week at the convention center. The last three locales where the group met were Barcelona, Spain; Seoul South Korea; and Dublin, Ireland, according to Kim Jamieson, spokeswoman for the Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports & Tourism. Next up, the group meets in Switzerland.
“It’s going to help to put Columbia on the map,” said Jason Outman, director of sales for the authority. “It is what we, as an organization, strive for.”
The convention center has hosted several large, high-profile conferences, including the National Hydrogen Association Expo & Conference in 2009, which drew nearly 800 people from throughout the world.
Perhaps more importantly, it has several more high-profile events planned over the next two years. “We’ve got a lot of large groups on the horizon,” Outman said. “We’re getting on the radar.”
The center will host an American Nuclear Society safety conference next year, Outman said. In 2014, it plans to host as many as 800 people during the International Conference of Police Chaplains and another 2,000 during a Special Forces Association meeting, he said.
“More people coming here means more dollars in people’s pockets,” said Ric Luber, the authority’s president and chief executive.
Attendees stay in Midlands’ hotels and eat at area restaurants. They visit local attractions and shop at Columbia-area stores.
“For the city, there’s certainly a big economic impact on the tourism industry,” said Deborah Salzberg, conference planning director for USC’s Arnold School of Public Health, which was instrumental in bringing the epidemiology conference to Columbia.
The conference brought in participants from 44 countries, Salzberg said.
“Many of them have never been to the United States at all,” she said, adding others have not been to this part of the country. “We’ve been trying to show them our Southern hospitality.”
After attending seminars during the day, the groups spend the evening taking trips to Congaree National Park, a purple martin cruise on Lake Murray or a moonlit paddle down the Congaree River, she said. Some participants say they plan to visit other parts of the state, such as Charleston or Hilton Head Island.
“Having a conference like this here means there is a potential for other conferences because you have good experiences and feedback,” Salzberg said. The school already is working on bringing another large international conference to Columbia.
“We have a lot to offer,” the center’s Jamieson said. “If we can house it, then we want it here.”
Bringing the conferences here, however, takes more than just wishing.
The authority works together with a variety of community partners, including the university, to target large gatherings and introduce them to what Columbia has to offer, Jamieson said.
The authority has had leads from 33 states and is making a big push to market itself in the Northeastern United States and the association-rich Washington, D.C., area, Outman said. “We’ve really taken Columbia as a regional event destination and have really expanded out.”
Once it gets the interest of conference organizers, the authority flies them in for a two-day whirlwind tour of facilities and the community, Outman said. “They want to know what’s unique about the destination,” he said.
So the authority takes conference organizers on behind-the-scenes tours of Riverbanks Zoo and to glass-blowing demonstrations at One-Eared Cow Glass. It feeds them dinner at the convention center to showcase its catering and breakfast at the Capital City Club, where visitors get a bird’s-eye view of what the region has to offer. Visitors also patronize local restaurants, take a barbecue lunch cruise on Lake Murray, and attend museum and sports events.
Unlike some cities, the convention center and authority are managed under the same umbrella, Luber said. “It makes us much more effective in communication and sales.”
And it also sends a strong message to event organizers that spats between organizations won’t derail their conferences, he said. “They want to have that service after they get here,” he said.