Topic: Strategic Planning
On 3 August 2011, The Jamaica Gleaner published an article titled: "Completed Montego Bay Convention Centre Raises Expectations for Tourism Sector". It described the Montego Bay Convention Centre [MBCC] as:
"...the first of its kind in the English-speaking Caribbean and second in the region behind Puerto Rico, (as it) has joined a host of regions, including Asia, Europe and United States, with its convention offering."
MBCC has an approximate floor area of 21,500 m², and is capable of hosting 7,000 persons. It was executed by the Urban Development Corporation [UDC], a government-owned entity. The UDC website carries a page titled: "Montego Bay Convention Centre Retains Coveted Leading Meeting and Conference Title" which boasts of the facility being awarded the ‘Caribbean's Leading Meeting and Conference Centre' at the World Travel Awards 2012, for the second year in a row.
On the face of things, the facility would seem to have been a success. Yet, another article published in the Gleaner on 12 February 2013 reads: "Fire Them! - Shaw Calls for Marketing Firm to be Relieved of Mobay Convention Centre". In it, the opposition Spokesman of Finance called for the termination of the services of the US property and convention centre managers marketing the facility since July 2011. This was in response to the facility's high maintenance costs and that 99% of events hosted were local. Are the managers really to be blamed, or are they mere scapegoats?
Even though the Gleaner described MBCC as being "first of its kind in the English-speaking Caribbean", it really was not even first in Jamaica. Another page on the UDC website reads: "Jamaica Conference Centre Wins World Travel Awards". This referred to the same award MBCC had won, the year before it was completed. In fact, the Jamaica Conference Centre [JCC] had previously copped the award in 2001, 2002 and 2007. This facility was not only executed, but also managed by UDC. It was completed in 1983 as the headquarters of the United Nations [UN] International Seabed Authority and venue for the organization's meetings. It is roughly the same size as MBCC, when including the secretarial building.
In 1982, the UN convention on the Law of the Sea was actually signed in Montego Bay and the town expected that the Conference Centre would have been built there. Instead it was built in the capital city Kingston. Thus began the lobby effort by the Montego Bay Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Montego Bay chapter of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourism Association [JHTA]. Ground was broken for MBCC on 14 February 2009, in the midst of an international recession. In fact, there was an apparent lack of maintenance of JCC as early as 1993 and the facility was closed for maintenance from April to December 2008. Even though JCC was the venue for meetings of the International Seabed Authority, it had consistently experienced low demand and high maintenance costs, even without an international recession. Why then was the risk of low demand and high maintenance costs not flagged?
In October 2007, construction of MBCC was actually postponed until April 2008, but this was because UDC questioned whether the facility was large enough for the Caribbean Marketplace event then scheduled for 2009. The JHTA welcomed the delay, as long as the venture was not cancelled, and stated that the organization was not consulted by the ruling government about it. According to the "International Association Meeting Markets 2002 - 2011" published by the International Congress and Convention Association, Hotels became the leading convention venues as early as 2005. In 2013, the former tourism minister, who was in office when construction started on MBCC, admitted that globally convention centres are typically not profitable, but catalysts for growth in other sectors. Yet, MBCC was projected to earn US$ 10 million annually when complete. Not only were lessons not learnt from previous experience, but there was also a failure to recognize the trend away from convention centres and the economic environment at the time.
For 26 years, Montego Bay had lived in anticipation of having its own convention centre. So much so that, no one questioned whether it was appropriate to build it or not, when the opportunity presented itself. Certainly, it should have been obvious before construction that the economic environment was not conducive for this development, and it was highly likely there would be sufficient demand to maintain the facility. But, a major event had been scheduled for the facility, one that promised to showcase Montego Bay in all its glory; and, a lot of work would have already been invested in the design and gaining the necessary regulatory approvals. Who cared about the facility's future? "If you build it, they will come" is not a sustainable facility planning strategy. The maintenance expenses would have been known. So, the risk of demand being insufficient to cover the maintenance expenses could have been quantified. In hindsight, it would have been better if the construction had been delayed and previous investment treated as sunken funds. When any venture is a first mover, mistakes will be made. If you fail to learn from them, your competition will.