Conventions, conferences could be key to Boston’s recovery

Need public debate on overall strategy and fate of Hynes

THE PUBLIC HEALTH crisis of COVID, an economic downturn, and a racial reckoning in America have stimulated pledges and bold initiatives to create a new normal that meets how inclusive business and commerce are now conducted.  With our collective focus shifting to fueling the region’s economic recovery, one of the critical catalysts is business travel and participation in conventions, conferences, and tradeshows.

The conventions, hospitality, and tourism industries are key to positioning Boston as a key destination for national and international conferences that not only bring economic activity but also help reinforce or reinvent the brand of our city.  When a major conference is hosted here, news, announcements, and social media are sent across the globe from Boston.  Hosting a conference like BIO reinforces our brand as the leading biotech hub on the planet while welcoming the NAACP helps Boston repair its brand as racist city.  So, what is our strategy for the conventions and meetings industry going forward?

As Boston’s business leaders consider this new future, destinations across the globe are also planning the future of the meetings industry as a mechanism to energize recovery. One concerningly quiet enterprise has been the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. Concerning because in 2019, the authority announced plans to close and sell the Hynes Convention Center without input from stakeholders, which idled a bold, successful, and competitive strategy that had emerged over the previous 20 years initiated by former Boston mayor Tom Menino.

The Hynes, coupled with the public investment in the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, filled hotels and restaurants and led to the elevation of Boston as a top 10 meetings destination in the US and the leading American host of international conventions.

An integrated public process helped shape this success. In the late 1990s, there were over 300 public meetings before the decision was reached to build phase one of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center. In 2013 and 2014, there were dozens of meetings, public reports, and legislative hearings before an expansion of the convention center was approved. In developing a strategy for the future, one thing is clear: there should be meaningful inclusive stakeholder participation – not just a process designed to check the box.

Coming out of COVID and with a pending transition in City government, the right path in this moment is a well-designed public process that produces a strategy allowing for input from the permanent new mayor.

I have said in the past – and I believe today – that given the power of our knowledge-based innovation economy, Boston has the capacity to be a “top 5” meetings and convention city as well as reclaim the position of the leading US city for hosting international meetings. The continued growth of our medical and life sciences sector, our innovation and technology culture, our leadership in financial services, and the path we are forging to lead on climate change will enable Boston to attract conference attendees as well as business and thought leaders from around the world.  And, as we consider the realities and perceptions of Boston as a welcoming city, intentionally targeting conferences run and attended by people of color needs to be part of our game plan.

We learned the hard lesson of the importance of visitors to our region during the pandemic. Our hotels and restaurants were devastated, and the hospitality and tourism industry and workforce are still struggling to recover.  This industry employs the third most people in the Commonwealth and hires more people of color and immigrants than any other sector.  As we create a conventions and meetings strategy, we should champion this industry and its diverse workforce in our plans, create hope for the future, and align our convention industry strategy with our strategy to build a more inclusive economy.

A fundamental question in our strategy discussions is the future of the Hynes.  There is little disagreement that we need to expand and update the convention center to accommodate multiple events simultaneously and meet current technology and ballroom space needs.

Consistent with the 2014 plan, the Hynes could stay open and be transformed into an international congress center focused on educational and knowledge exchange events instead of tradeshow floor-based events.  With the additional hotel rooms in the Seaport, Hynes business is poised to explode with proper marketing.  Many cities across the globe operate with this two-facility strategy, one focused on exhibitions and one focused on congresses.  Marketing Boston as the global hub of science, technology, and innovation would bolster this strategy.

We should also examine the merits of the 2019 proposal to close and sell the Hynes for development.  The pre-pandemic uncertainty associated with this plan remains. This strategy has yet to clarify the possible replacements for the Hynes and impact to Back Bay hotels, restaurants, retail businesses, and the neighborhood.  As demonstrated in the Commonwealth’s recent Future of Work report, it remains unclear whether Boston needs to develop an additional office tower or create more high-end housing over the next decade.

Another option for consideration might be to close the Hynes and abandon the idea of development on the Hynes site.  Instead, the site would be used to create a much needed outdoor “Bryant Park-like” active space with restaurants, programmed seasonal events, amenities, and attractions.

We could also keep the Hynes as a meeting facility and repurpose parts of the interior for commercial use, which was successfully accomplished with The Capital Grill and Rochambeau restaurants.

Meet the Author

James E. Rooney

President & CEO, Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce
Boston needs a well-developed, inclusive strategy to solidify its place in the global meetings and convention industry and support our hospitality and tourism industry and workforce. While the solutions and strategy are not entirely evident at this point, it is clear that we need an independent, thoughtful, and transparent process developed over the next 12 to 18 months, including all stakeholders in a public dialogue.

James Rooney is the president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.