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A break with convention

The days of big trade shows are over, so how do you fill a huge new hall? Try two smaller events.

When the Macworld Conference & Expo opens tomorrow at the new Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, the 10,000 computer geeks expected to attend will have the run of the massive South Boston meeting hall.

Well, sort of.

While the Macworlders grab their name tags and head for the center's sprawling exhibit floor, about 1,200 others will be attending a corporate meeting sponsored by German software maker SAP in the meeting rooms upstairs. And chances are that those attending one convention will never encounter participants from the other.

For the convention center, Macworld is the first high-profile show. But the event represents more than an opening; it marks a shift in strategy.

Conceived in the mid-1990s as a venue that could accommodate huge conventions and trade shows with tens of thousands of attendees, the new convention center has faced changing expectations as the era of huge trade shows went bust along with the economy. Just last month, the annual Comdex computer show, one of the country's largest, canceled this year's Las Vegas meeting.

Today, meeting planners focus on smaller, more specialized events.

For the $800 million Boston convention center, the 15th biggest in the country, that means predictions of dozens of gigantic conventions are giving way to more realistic expectations. The mammoth building, the new rationale goes, is best utilized if it can host two or more smaller events at once.

''Being able to sell prime time to two or three different events is huge. You've got somebody only using one-third, that's something extra you can sell," said James Rooney, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority.

It wasn't supposed to be that way. The center's original feasibility study in 1997 projected the building would host 34 large conventions in its first year of operations. City and state officials hungered for a bigger center because the John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center in the Back Bay was too small to hold big shows.

Construction started in 2000, but bookings slowed in the four years it took to build. As the economy slowed and big meetings fell out of vogue, the convention authority cut back booking goals. The center's sales staff now doesn't expect to book 34 large conventions annually until at least 2009. Until then, the center hopes to book 29 to 43 bookings -- of any size -- in the year 2010.

So far, 59 events are booked between now and 2010, 34 of which will take up at least one-third of the center's space, or what the convention staff deems as large meetings. Included are the National Association of Letter Carriers, the Biotechnology Industry Association, and Microsoft Corp.

Before, none could have booked Boston because the Hynes was too small.

''We have very high convention space requirements, and there's only a handful of convention centers in the United States that can handle those requirements," said Michael Kosek, New England general manager for Microsoft, which will hold its 11,000-person TechEd convention at the center in 2006. ''Boston has now been added to that list of cities."

The convention authority's salespeople have reached revised goals for 2005 and are on pace to meet goals for each year through 2010.

While more nearby hotels will help bookings -- a 790-room Westin hotel is under construction next to the center -- the hope of convention sales staff is that the building will sell itself. Features include 82 meeting rooms, an exhibit hall large enough to house a dozen Boeing 747 airplanes, and enough carpet to line the Boston Marathon route.

This week's two conventions, which will bring in more than 11,000 people to the building at the same time, will test whether the center can do a juggling act. ''We're a guinea pig in a lot of ways," said Warwick Davies, group vice president at IDG World Expo, the Framingham company that owns the Macworld trade show.

Keith Reed can be reached at

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