The global pandemic hit the convention industry hard, with the majority of marquee events canceled and many facilities left empty or repurposed as vaccination centers and field hospitals. But the end is in sight and planners are looking ahead — as are hotels, restaurants, airlines, and promotional products suppliers.
Many convention centers used the past year to improve their facilities, get more ambitious with their sustainability goals, and update their procedures. For instance, 21 of the country’s 25 largest convention centers earned the Global BioRisk Advisory Council’s GBAC Star accreditation for their cleaning and disinfection protocols.
- Size and amenities – Total square feet, amount of Class A exhibit space, number of meeting rooms
- Affordability – Average hotel and restaurant cost
- Visitor reviews – Ratings on Google, Yelp, and TripAdvisor
- Venue accessibility – Transit score, minutes to a major airport
- Walkability – Pedestrian friendliness, amenities within walking distance
- Sustainability – Recycling, renewable energy, water use, indoor air quality, emissions, innovation, LEED green building certification
- Safety – Nighttime safety, physical safety, incidents of theft, access to medical care
- Cleanliness – Disinfection and disease prevention protocols
After careful review and scoring using a weighted ranking system, here are the results:
*Score based on size, affordability, visitor reviews, transit-friendliness, walkability, sustainability, safety, and cleanliness/COVID protocols.
McCormick Place topped our list, earning a total score of 87.8 on a 100-point scale, largely on the strength of its size. Located on Chicago’s lakefront, just minutes from downtown, the McCormick Place campus ranked among the top three in terms of total size, exhibit space (where it ranked No. 1), and meeting rooms. It also ranked No. 8 in popularity and placed in the top 20 for every category but one: affordability.
Each of the highest-scoring venues in our study offers advantages in terms of location.
McCormick Place on Lake Michigan offers access to the nation’s third-largest population center, Chicago. It also provides a central location geographically for the United States and North America and offers access to more than 100,000 hotel rooms to serve convention-goers.
The Las Vegas Convention Center ranked second in three categories — total size, exhibit space, and number of meeting rooms — and fifth in safety. Las Vegas is not only a gambling and entertainment hub, it also serves as the nation’s nightlife capital. Vegas offers more hotel rooms than any other U.S. city, with some 150,000 rooms.
The Orange County Convention Center had top-five showings in three categories: total size (No. 1), exhibit space (No. 3), and sustainability (No. 4). This massive venue is located in one of the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas, supported by entertainment venues such as Disney World and Universal Studios.
At the other end of the list, the NRG Center in Houston came in at No. 25, scoring near the bottom in terms of accessibility, walkability, and the number of meeting rooms. But that doesn’t mean it’s at all bad. The study only included convention centers with at least 500,000 square feet of exhibit space, making it an elite group. The NRG Center ranked third for affordability and was the fifth-most popular venue on the list.
The International Exposition Center in Cleveland (I-X) has more than 865,000 square feet of exhibit space but was excluded from the study because it has permanently closed.
*Under expansion, only completed facilities included.
SOURCES: Convention centers’ planning materials, Google Maps area calculator tool
It’s hard to fathom just how massive some of America’s convention centers are — in some cases, big enough to house the entire population of a medium-sized city. We measured America’s venues in a variety of ways including total square footage, exhibit space, and number of meeting rooms.
The Orange County Convention Center has by far the most total square feet at 7 million, making it more than twice the size of any other entry except the runner-up Las Vegas Convention Center. The building’s exhibition hall alone covers 22 acres, enough to fit 200 NBA basketball courts.
Not sure just how massive that is? If you were to stretch out 7 million square feet into a narrow 1-foot wide path, it would stretch 1,326 miles — more than the distance from Miami to New York City. At a comfortable pace of 3 miles per hour, it would take you 441.9 hours to walk it — or 18.4 days (without sleep)!
McCormick Place in Chicago is the biggest if you focus solely on exhibit space. The convention center consists of four buildings, connected by promenades and sky bridges, with a combined 2.6 million square feet of space, nearly one-quarter of which can be found in its 173 meeting rooms.
If you need a lot of separate meeting rooms for your event, the Sands Expo and Convention Center in Las Vegas offers the most, with 350 distinct rooms.
That’s a lot, but one Yelp reviewer from Monterey Park said it wasn’t a problem: “The place here is a maze and it’s huge as well. There were lots of conference rooms and they were well organized and prepared for the participants to arrive. If you got lost or had trouble finding a room, the staff here is friendly and help point you to the right direction.”
But it was the Las Vegas Convention Center, which ranked second overall on our list, that hosted the biggest trade show of 2019, when 4,500 exhibitors and 175,000 attendees descended on the venue for the Consumer Technology Association event. In fact, it hosted five of the 10 biggest events that year.
At the other end of the spectrum, Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the nation’s capital had the smallest footprint among the 25 facilities on our list, while America’s Center in St. Louis had the least exhibit space. The Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Ill., had the fewest number of rooms.
Of course, there’s more to a good convention center experience than size. Many factors come into play, including affordability, accessibility, safety, and visitor experience. Here are some other rankings from our study.
SOURCES: Business Travel News, Numbeo, Zagat
When it comes to affordability, the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis heads the list with a 9.7 score on our 1-10 scale, followed by two Houston venues: NRG Center and George R. Brown Convention Center, both at 9.4. Another Texas site, the Henry B. González Convention Center, and the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City round out the top 5 at 9.3 each.
It should be noted that our scores aren’t based on costs at the venues themselves, such as parking fees and concessions, which can vary from one event to the next. They were compiled from the average midscale hotel room rate including tax, based on Business Travel News’ 2020 Corporate Travel Index, and the average cost of dinner based on Numbeo’s Restaurant Price Index and Zagat.
Meals were cheapest near America’s Convention Center in St. Louis and the Salt Palace, both of which averaged just under $30 a meal. They were the most expensive near the Jacob K. Javits Center in New York, where they cost $48.56 — more than five dollars more than any other locale on our list.
The average midscale hotel room was cheapest in Indianapolis, at just over $128, including tax. Compare that to New York’s price of more than $293, and the $301 visitors to San Francisco’s Moscone Center could expect to pay.
It should come as no surprise that big-city venues occupy the bottom five places on our affordability list: convention centers in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and New York.
SOURCES: Google, Yelp, TripAdvisor
The top six entries in this category were all west of the Mississippi, with two in Texas, and two more in the Rocky Mountains.
Our analysis included each venue’s reviews on Google, Yelp, and TripAdvisor. The number of total reviews ranged from 921 for the Indiana Convention Center to 14,210 for the Javits Center, with an average of 6,347 reviews per center.
The Henry B. González Convention Center in San Antonio topped the list, and location is a big reason: It lies in the center of the city’s historic downtown and along the banks of the scenic River Walk. It’s also right across the street from the Shops at Rivercenter mall, which, in turn, is adjacent to historic Alamo Plaza. These factors, which helped the city place fourth on our walkability list (see below), doubtless contribute to its popularity.
A TripAdvisor user from Washington, D.C., remarked: “A convention center is a convention center but what I like about this one is the location and the surrounding. It is located near most if not all tourist attraction[s] and with [an] extension of the San Antonio River goes right into the building.”
But the center’s interior is a draw, too. One Yelp user from Birmingham, Ala., commented that “the carpet, paint, seating, artwork, and overall design of the conference rooms are all top-notch!”
A TripAdvisor user from Tulsa, Okla., was similarly impressed after a two-day visit: “The rooms were spacious. The restrooms were clean and well stocked. The food service was impeccable. It was a great venue.”
The González Center was the only venue to score above 9 on our 10-point scale, but each of the 25 convention centers on the list managed at least an 8, making the range for this category the narrowest in our survey. In fact, the competition was so close that 11 convention centers were all clustered within 0.08 of a point from one another.
The Colorado Convention Center and Salt Palace were tied for second, followed by the NRG Center in Houston and the San Diego Convention Center, site of the annual Comic-Con.
Bringing up the rear was the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas. A frequent site of championship boxing matches and UFC mixed-martial arts events, it’s also the home of women’s pro basketball’s Las Vegas Aces.
High prices seemed to be a major concern among reviewers. A Yelp user from Colorado Springs said he “spent $18.50 for a bottled water and a sandwich so dry I couldn’t eat it,” and urging visitors to “take your lunch so you don’t get screwed by these people.” Another reviewer, from London, complained about paying $12 “for a crap hot dog.”
SOURCES: Walk Score, MapQuest, Google
The Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia tops our list for walkability and transit-friendly centers, with a score of 9.3 out of 10. It’s accessible by two subway lines and seven regional rail lines, and is within 15 minutes’ walking distance of bus routes.
One Yelp reviewer noted that “there are plenty of paid [parking] lots but we usually take the regional rail which leaves us in the building (so no going outside).”
Just a few blocks from the Delaware River, it’s right down the street from historic sites such as Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and the Museum of the American Revolution to the east. To the west, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is only about a mile away.
Second place on our list went to the Moscone Center in San Francisco with a score of 9.2. It’s just a few blocks from the Embarcadero and San Francisco Bay, and you can also walk southeast to Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team. Pier 39 is a little farther, but still only about a mile away to the north in this very compact city.
If you’re walking, though, be prepared to climb a few hills. On the other hand, you can always take the world’s last manually operated cable car system.
San Diego’s convention center, with a high walkability score and a distance of just 6 minutes from the airport, ranked No. 3 with a score of 8.7.
All but two of the convention centers on our list were 30 minutes or less from a major airport, and none was longer than 38 minutes away without traffic.
SOURCE: U.S. Green Building Council
Four of the top six venues in this category were in California, with the Moscone Center in San Francisco leading the way.
The Moscone Center completed a four-year, $500 million upgrade in 2018, expanding its functional space by 25%. The goal was to attract more events and attendees, and it worked, as hotel bookings rebounded the following year.
But the expansion clearly didn’t come at the expense of sustainability. The Moscone Center has been a leader in that category since 2012, when it became the first convention center on the West Coast to achieve gold certification in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) from the U.S. Green Building Council.
It has clearly maintained that high standard, with the latest LEED scorecard ranking the center highly in such categories as alternative commuting transportation and use of renewable energy. Its website boasts that it gives off fewer carbon emissions per delegate than any other major convention center in North America, operates using zero-emissions electricity, and uses daylight harvesting to offset electrical lighting.
Each of the top 10 venues on the list received gold certification from LEED, reflecting the growing popularity of “green meetings.” The Colorado Convention Center, which ranked No. 3 on our list, was the first to meet certifications for ASTM environmentally sustainable meetings, events, trade shows and conferences.
Data came from LEED project reports and scorecards. Note: There was only enough data to evaluate 18 of the 25 convention centers in our study, as the others have not pursued LEED certification.
SOURCES: GeoSure Global, International Sanitary Supply Association
The Anaheim Convention Center was the clear winner in this category with a score of 8.9, with three of the top four venues being in California. The San Diego and Javits centers each scored 8.1, followed by the Moscone Center at 8.0.
GeoSure breaks its rankings down into seven categories:
- Nighttime safety
- Physical safety
- Women’s safety
- Basic freedoms
- Health and medical
- LGBTQ+ safety
The Anaheim Convention Center scored particularly well in four categories: theft, nighttime, physical, and LGBTQ+ safety. San Diego, which tied for second with the Javits Center in New York, did best in women’s safety. Both scored lowest in health and medical.
The Javits Center did best when it came to LGBTQ+ and women’s safety, and worst in terms of basic freedoms such as arbitrary detention and lack of due process. Moscone did best in the same two categories where Javits shone.
In the past year, safety from infectious disease has become a big concern. To measure that risk, we turned to cleaning industry’s outbreak prevention, response, and recovery accreditation.
GBAC Star accreditation indicates that the facility:
- Maintains a cleaning, disinfection, and infectious disease prevention program to minimize risks from COVID and other contagious illnesses.
- Uses proper cleaning and disinfection techniques, and work practices to combat biohazards and infectious disease.
- Employes cleaning professionals who are trained to prepare for and respond to any outbreaks.
The Indiana and Orange County venues were the only two not to either have received that accreditation or be in the process of seeking it.
The Salt Palace in Utah ranked at the bottom of our safety ratings with a score of 5.5, with particularly low scores for theft, physical safety, and nighttime safety. This reflects the fact that Salt Lake City ranked as the worst U.S. city for property crime in 2018. Things were bad in 2020, as well, with property crimes up 24.9% and violent crimes surging by 21.6%.
Summing it all up
Convention centers drive a lot of tourism. Many cities make them a priority, because they bring visitor dollars into town, bolstering local businesses and the tax base. Despite a year in which they’ve had to cancel numerous events due to COVID, they’re ready to do business again.
Although many events have been canceled or postponed, others have been given the green light as vaccines continue to be administered and some states have started to relax business restrictions.
We hope our ratings help schedulers choose the venue that fits them best if they’re planning an event, and lets attendees know what to expect.
The study only included convention centers with at least 500,000 square feet of exhibit space. Our analysts compiled data from dozens of respected sources and weighted it as follows:
Size and amenities – 20%
This included total square feet, building footprint in acres, the amount of Class A exhibit space, and the number of meeting rooms. Square footage, exhibit space, and meeting room information came from the venues’ own published materials. Building footprints were measured using the Google Maps area calculator tool.
Affordability – 10%
This category focused on average hotel and restaurant costs. The average midscale hotel room rate including tax was based on Business Travel News’ 2020 Corporate Travel Index. The average cost of dinner was based on Numbeo’s Restaurant Price Index and Zagat.
Visitor reviews – 20%
Visitor review scores were based on published reviews on Google, Yelp, and TripAdvisor. The number of total reviews ranged from 921 for the Indiana Convention Center to 14,210 for the Javits Center with an average of 6,347 reviews per center. In the analysis, we made a concerted effort to separate reviews of the facility from reviews of specific events or speakers.
Venue location accessibility – 10%
This is a measure of how easy it is to get to each convention center. We focused on each venue’s transit score and how many minutes it typically takes to reach the nearest major airport (without traffic). The transit score came from Walkscore.com. Minutes to the airport without traffic was based on MapQuest Route Planner.
Walkability – 10%
This is a measure of pedestrian-friendliness and amenities within walking distance, based on data from Walkscore.com.
Sustainability – 10%
Sustainability scores considered elements like recycling, renewable energy, water use, indoor air quality, emissions, and innovation. They were based on data from U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) project reports and scorecards. There was only enough data to evaluate 18 of the 25 convention centers in our study, as the others have not pursued LEED certification.
Safety – 10%
This category included nighttime safety, physical safety, incidents of theft, access to medical care, and other factors such as LGBTQ+ and gender-based discrimination. Data came from GeoSure Global.
Cleanliness and disinfection protocols – 10%
During a pandemic, disease prevention protocols are especially important. This category was based on ISSA GBAC Star accreditation records.