Convention & Visitors Association’s new chairwoman has a rosy outlook

Brenda Tinnen knows how to compete on the big stage, pushing the Sprint Center to be a consistent top national entertainment venue since it opened in 2007.

Now, as the new chairwoman of the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association, she wants to use the skills and connections honed here and during her previous life helping run the Staples Center in Los Angeles to reverse what has been a discouraging decline in local convention and tourism business.

“Not only do I have hands-on experience with larger events — Los Angeles hosted the Democratic Convention in 2000. And then there’s the Grammys and Academy Awards, all great and all very L.A.,” Tinnen said. “But what I also bring to the table is, I’m familiar with the hierarchy of how decisions are made.”

Tinnen was elected chairwoman of the association’s board in January, the second woman to receive that title in its 96-year history. Anita Gorman served from 1995 to 1997.

Her arrival comes at a pivotal time for the local convention industry.

Last fall, city officials complained that convention business, despite the billions of dollars spent over the past decade to make downtown more appealing, had been declining, with big conventions down significantly. Bill Lucas, a former association chairman, estimated business overall was off 30 percent from previous years.

In January, the association reported bookings were up 10 percent last year over 2012, with 232 conventions on the schedule in upcoming years. But it’s still not the kind of return people were hoping when major public investments were made in the Power & Light District, the Sprint Center and the Convention Center.

Tinnen already has a hefty hierarchy of decisions awaiting her. One of her first tasks will be helping pick a new president and CEO for the association. Jon Stephens became interim leader after Rick Hughes retired last July. But Stephens wants to return to his own communications business, Rockhill Strategies, and is not seeking the permanent job.

Tinnen said the association wants his successor in place by the end of May. A national search is underway. She praised Stephens for having done an “incredible” job during his time at the agency.

One of the bigger initiatives was a closer partnering between the Convention & Visitors Association and the Kansas City Sports Commission. Tinnen said that helped the city recently land commitments from the National Collegiate Athletic Association for 14 events over the next five years, including soccer, volleyball and football national championships.

Another big item on that hierarchy of decisions list is the metropolitan area’s pitch for the 2016 Republican National Convention.

Tinnen said the city’s experience hosting Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game in 2012 and Major League Soccer’s championship game in 2013, won by Sporting Kansas City, showed what it’s capable of accomplishing.

He also plugged the cockier attitude that the Sprint Center has generated: “People are walking taller here since we’ve been getting high-level artists.”

She’s also “very optimistic” about the Republican convention.

“We’ve been working on this for 14 months,” Tinnen said. “In the beginning, it was a very grass-roots effort to make sure local civic leaders were on board. It would not only be good economically but also for the profile of the city.”

So what does she think the city’s chances are of landing such a high-profile event?

“It depends on what time of day it is,” Tinnen replied. “The devil is in the details. I feel confident looking at what we’ve done responding to their (party officials’) request for proposals.”

The third big item on the list could be the city’s tortuous effort to build a major convention hotel downtown. The city has dropped a million dollars over the past five years studying the idea, and at this point no financially viable plan has emerged.

Tinnen does accept the premise behind the proposal, that Kansas City needs a major hotel on the order of 1,000 rooms within close proximity to Bartle Hall if it wants to land big conventions.

“I look at it as the fourth leg,” she said. “We have the Sprint Center and Convention Center as the bookends of the Power & Light District. I think it would be a complement to our convention business.”

On the other hand, Tinnen understands the city’s reluctance to participate in any plan that would put its credit at risk.

“I certainly don’t want it to be a project that bankrupts the city,” she said. “I’m looking to the mayor and city manager to make the decision.”