So much for Populous being a one trick pony, albeit the biggest in the business when it comes to sports architecture. It turns out the Kansas City firm has another major league skill in its repertoire.
The latest survey by Building Design & Construction, a national trade publication, ranked Populous No. 1 when it comes to sports architecture with $69 million in revenue last year. No surprise there.
But what’s this?
Populous also was No. 1 for convention center design with $15 million in revenue. And the firm was the ninth largest architecture firm overall in the nation, according to the publication’s “2013 Giants 300” report, with $84 million in revenue.
The convention business all began in 2001 with event centers in a couple of smaller regional cities — Dubuque, Iowa, and Springfield, Mo. It has now grown to mega-projects from Sydney, Australia, to Qatar in the Middle East, with Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Jose and Oklahoma City thrown in for good measure.
Todd Voth, a senior principal at Populous who leads the firm’s convention practice, said it started in 1999 as a backup plan. That’s when Populous, at the time HOK Sport, was polishing its reputation as a designer of premier professional and major college sports venues.
“We realized at some point a lot of the sports facilities would be built out,” he said. “We started talking about getting into the public-assembly aspects of the business.”
The trouble was, there was not much expertise at Populous when it came to designing convention centers. Voth was recruited from Gould Evans in 2001 and, although he had some hospitality-related experience, he hadn’t done convention centers.
“It was interesting to start a practice without a portfolio,” he said. “We were the most recognized sports design firm in the world and were strong in that market, but we had no reputation in convention centers compared to firms with 20 or 30 years of experience.”
After learning to play in Dubuque and Springfield, Populous decided to shoot for the big time. Phoenix was seeking a designer for what was to be a $660 million, 2 million-square-foot convention center in 2003 to replace its old facility.
Voth said the firm knew it needed someone with solid experience, so it hired an architect from its former mothership, St. Louis-based HOK. He helped them land the Phoenix gig. From there, other Populist architects began entering the convention design business.
“I developed a staff from our internal ranks,” Voth said. “I’ve always admired the entrepreneurial spirit of this company. It was started by guys who were in their late 20s with a lot of enthusiasm.”
A critical strategic move was the decision to start what Populous coined its “Imagine That Workshop.” Each year, convention center industry professionals from all over North America are invited to town to discuss where the business is going.
“We needed to distinguish ourselves as the design-thought leaders,” Voth said. “It turned into an exclusive think tank, and we’ve become well known.”
One insight was that architects needed to work with a bigger canvas if they wanted to design a successful convention center.
“Historically, there’s been a tension between meeting planners and their customers,” Voth said. “The meeting planners want to keep them in their building, but now customers are also interested in learning more about the city.
“You need to create a district around the convention center. We’ve been getting into more district and destination design. We’re working hard to create a new model.”
And the marketplace shows Populous has hit a winning formula.
The firm is designing a $260 million renovation and expansion of the convention center in Los Angeles, a $320 million project in San Antonio, and a project, price tag undisclosed, to design a convention center in Doha, the capital of Qatar, with Burns & McDonnell, a local engineering firm.
Other design contracts include a $120 million renovation project in San Jose and a new, $190 million convention center in Oklahoma City. The biggest deal to date is a new $1 billion convention center planned for Sydney.
The convention center business has grown from less than 10 percent of the firm’s revenues to almost 30 percent now.
Not a bad backup plan.
“We continue to think this is a good business with sports maturing,” Voth said.