Tourism officials await design of convention center

Within a month the preliminary design for the nation’s public convention center should be presented.  The central government and its Instituto Costarricense de Turismo are betting on the 15,000-square meter (161,459-square foot) project to move the country firmly into the international convention business. The proposed project on 10 hectares of land in Barreal de Heredia along the General Cañas autopista would be three times as large as any facility available now.

The tourism institute entered into an agreement with a consortium of architects for the design last November. At that time the consortium was given 129 days to come up with the design.

“With the construction of the first great Centro Nacional de Congresos y Convenciones de Costa Rica we are betting on the diversification of the tourist offers in our country to consolidate our competitivity at the world level and assume the challenge of entering a profitable niche of congresses, conventions and world fairs,” said  Allan Flores at the time. He is the tourism minister.

The idea of a convention center has been kicked around for years. And the tourism institute said that there exists a feasibility study, a soil study and a topographical study. There also has been an environmental impact study.

Flores did not spell out the challenges, but the construction of the center comes at a time when the number of convention goers in the United States has dropped significantly. At the same time the number of convention centers have mushroomed.

Cities and states see convention centers as a way to tap income from visitors with a lot of disposable income who require no long-term public services.

The tourism institute says that it is looking at events from Latin American and cites statistics from the Confederación de Entidades Organizadoras de Congresos & Afines de América Latina. That organization said that the average attendance at such events is about 3,000 persons.

Elsewhere, mainly in the United States, municipalities found that a single-use facility like a convention center requires  successful marketing. Municipalities that cannot market well eventually turn to public financing, like higher hotel taxes, and also financial aid from the state.

The tourism institute already manages taxes and has a significant cash flow. But much of that money is supposed to go for international marketing. Flores is the tourism minister now, but the convention center got its biggest push from Carlos Ricardo Benavides, who preceded Flores in the job. Benavides now is the minister to the Presidencia.

The cost of the convention center is not fully established. That will come when bids are let for the actual construction. But the architects doing the design are believed to be charging 1 billion colons or about $2 million.  That sum may also include supervision of the actual job. Typically such public projects end up costing much more than the original estimate.

Tourism organizations are squarely behind the project. A major convention that most certainly will make use of the new center when it is built is Expotur, a marketplace for Costa Rican tourism. The concept of a face-to-face market has to compete now with the Internet, Web pages and online chats. This may be one reason why convention attendance is down in the United States.

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