The Inky Isn’t the Convention Center’s Problem

Center leaders should stop complaining, and Corbett and Nutter should beg Peter Luukko to run the show

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” — William Shakespeare, Hamlet

On March 5th, the Inquirer’s Paul Davies published what struck me as a mild criticism of the Pennsylvania Convention Center’s management. That management has been the subject of press and public criticism for nearly 20 years. The $786 million expansion brings the amount of public investment in this gargantuan facility to well over $1.2 billion. We should have only one wish for it: That it be as hugely successful as it has been costly. Since Philadelphia now has the hotels, the restaurants, the historic destinations, the amenities, the arts and culture—in short HAS EVERYTHING—the key to the success of this investment is customer satisfaction. The customer in this case is the convention planner, the show organizer, the trade or industry group and their travelling members.

[SIGNUP]Davies outlined some significant concerns. He cited a study that observed that labor costs had priced us out of 400,000 room nights of business over a two-year period. He observed that the Center has six unions who compete for jurisdiction and control. He pinpointed labor costs that make your head shake—as in “NO, that can’t be true.” He describeded a labor oversight arrangement fraught with conflicts. He made clear that the stewardship of the Center was in the hands of a public board appointed by elected officials.

Herein lies the Center’s core problem. When the PCC sought legislative support back in the 1980s, the Building Trades Unions clearly provided the political muscle to move the legislature and get the funding. Their reward aside from the construction work was an unhealthy level of influence over the facility’s operations. Trying to curb that requires the Center’s board members to pressure labor, the same labor that helps elect the folks who appoint the board.

This week, PCVB Chair Nick DeBenedictis, one of Philadelphia’s most dedicated and effective civic leaders, penned a letter to the editor in response to Davies piece charging the paper with “sabotage” of the convention business. He suggested that a booked convention was re-thinking its commitment, not because of the underlying issues cited by Davies, but because Davies wrote about them. The solution? “We should all be rooting for the home team,” concluded DeBenedictis.

During the week, PCC Executive Director Ameenah Young was out of her mind furious at a meeting of the tourism community’s top leadership. Young railed against the Inquirer and reinforced the charge of deliberate sabotage. She herself is often referred to as “Dwight’s person”—referring to her association with State Rep. Dwight Evans. I’ve never heard her characterized with the “M” word—as in “manager.”

Things have improved slowly at the PCC but the underlying cost factors, the continued complaints from customers and the performance demands created by the combination of this massive expansion (supply), continued competition from equally large or larger centers/cities and the changing patterns of the meeting industry caused by economic and technology shifts all require that Philadelphia do more than simply make incremental fixes. This game is going to get harder, and we’ve just upped the ante.

It’s also time for the Center and the business leadership to fix its own problems. Stop complaining and do something bold and dramatic.

My suggestion? Governor Corbett and Mayor Nutter should make a personal appeal to Peter Luukko, COO of Comcast-Spectacor to take a two-year leave of absence to run—without interference—the PCC. Luukko has 30 years of experience running public assembly facilities and dealing with labor, operations and customers. Some day he will likely assume the CEO’s role at C-S. The experience and insight he would gain from running and fixing the PCC’s problems would be valuable to him and his company. Arguably, a request of this nature coming from Corbett and Nutter would be “an offer he couldn’t refuse.” Everybody else should get out of the way. Luukko would have two jobs—fix the center and make it competitive and find and groom a successor. When the convention planners read the story about Luukko’s appointment, my sense is that the public relations tide will shift entirely our way.

In the meantime, it would be best if the people who are responsible for growing the tourism industry focused on solving the problem that unnerves their customers.

That problem is not the Philadelphia Inquirer.