Duke Energy Center closure means short-term pain, long-term gain for Cincinnati event industry

With the Duke Energy Convention Center set to close for renovations next year, the Greater Cincinnati event and convention industry is bracing for major changes ahead.

But with the promise of $200 million worth of upgrades, enhancements and the expansion of the downtown Cincinnati facility and other improvements to the surrounding area, regional leaders are voicing excitement about what the future of local tourism looks like in 2026 and far beyond.

“It’s really about creating a much better experience for both the meeting planner and the visitor to the building,” Julie Calvert, president and CEO of Visit Cincy, said of the multiple year Convention Center District project.

“This is really going to put Cincinnati on par with the best-in-class convention centers,” she added. “This renovation is going to make us much more competitive in the future but for bigger convention business.”

Duke Energy Convention Center

Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., better known as 3CDC, announced construction at the Duke Energy Center will get underway in mid-July 2024. The nonprofit real estate developer is serving as the development manager for renovation of the 55-year-old facility.

The convention center is owned by the city of Cincinnati. OVG360 – a venue management company – handles the center’s day-to-day operations.

Planned aesthetic upgrades to the convention center include adding an elongated glass façade to the exterior face of the building. Inside, work will focus on modernizing and extending the exhibit hall space by 12,000 square feet. The blocks-long, multi-story facility will also feature upgraded meeting and ballrooms that can adjust in size to meet the space needs of presenters – whether they’re a convention, a public show, a gala or a meeting.

There will also be improvements to technology and updates to building systems to make the center more energy efficient.

Beyond the changes to the convention center, the project includes changes in the surrounding area in the southwestern part of downtown as well. The so-called Convention Center District will include a roughly two-acre park and outdoor convention space on the site of the former Millennium Hotel on Elm Street.

Additionally, construction of a new hotel just south of the convention center will complement the Convention Center’s renovation. The hotel will include up to 800 rooms, 60,000 to 80,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, 15,000 square feet of retail, multiple ballrooms, a pool and an outdoor activity deck.

Work on the park and hotel will start in 2024.

Convention Center closure and project timeline

To reduce the project timeline, the decision was made to close the entire convention center for the duration of the project, according to Joe Rudemiller, who leads communications for 3CDC

3CDC expects the closure to last 18 months. As slated, the Duke Energy Convention Center will reopen in early 2026.

Rudemiller noted that leaders from the city, Hamilton County, civic organizations and business have coalesced around the urgent need to move the Convention Center District forward.

Operating the convention center in any capacity during construction isn’t practical, Rudemiller added. He called the prolonged closure the “most safe and efficient” solution.

“All agree that the short-term challenges are worth the potential long-term benefits that will result from a newly renovated convention center,” he added.

Inside Duke Energy Convention Center
A current interior corridor of the Duke Energy Convention Center

Cincinnati City Manager Sheryl Long described the project as having the potential to attract new life to an underdeveloped corner of downtown. She believes that the updated facility, together with the new hotel, will enable Cincinnati to attract large-scale events that are currently choosing other, nearby cities. 

“We understand the closure is not ideal. However, this investment will see returns for decades to come,” Long said.

Rudemiller was adamant that 3CDC will meet the 18-month “hard deadline” for the project. He compared it to the 2016-2017 renovation of Music Hall. 3CDC had to complete that $143 million project in 16 months and did so.

“With many construction projects, we like to be a little less certain on the timing, because things can change,” he added. “With the convention center renovation, there is no wiggle room – we will be finished in 18 months.”

Playing the tourism long game

As part of the development process, 3CDC has been working with the hotel association and nearby bars and restaurants to make them aware of the project and timeline. It also worked with tourism groups and event promoters on planning.

Visit Cincy is a destination marketing organization working to attract tourists and events to the Cincinnati region. Calvert, who’s headed Visit Cincy since 2018, labeled the project a “reinvention” of not only the convention center but also downtown.

The last major renovation and expansion to Duke Energy Convention Center took place in 2006.

“This is going to make Cincinnati a more inviting destination for event promoters and exhibitors of all sizes,” Calvert said. “We know there will be some pains, but we just have to be patient and be flexible and find creative workarounds to accommodate those who want to do business here. I think, certainly, we’re all committed to that.” 

While the updates to the convention center are key, the new hotel is perhaps the most significant part of the project, Calvert said.

“This is really about hotel rooms,” Calvert said of the project. “Because we don’t have that convention center hotel, we’re having to put together six, seven or even eight hotels sometimes just to satisfy the room block requirement, whereas other cities in our region, such as Columbus or Louisville, can do it in one or two.”

“If meeting planners can source Columbus, there’s no reason they shouldn’t source Cincinnati,” she added.

An aerial rendering of the proposed convention hotel in downtown Cincinnati. (3CDC)
Proposed design for the convention hotel (3CDC)

Visit Cincy has been working for months with show presenters and convention promoters to not only find them new locations for 2025 but also to lock in their future business. They’re also busy working to lock in their business for future years.

A few places they’re pitching to promoters include the Sharonville and Covington, convention centers as well as alternative meeting spaces, such as Hard Rock Casino.

But Calvert admitted that some of the groups – even ones with longstanding histories in Cincinnati – won’t be able to keep events in the region next year because they can’t find an alternative venue with adequate space.

While there may be some lost revenue over the next two years due to the convention center being closed, Calvert doesn’t expect the region to feel that pain for very long.

A “good number” of promoters have already committed to coming back to Cincinnati for future events, she said, and she feels they will be “very happy” with the brand-new center.

“I want to be clear: We are not out of the convention business for the next year and a half,” Calvert said. “We’re not going to have use of the convention center, but there’s a great deal of meetings that use one to three hotels downtown to host their meetings and we plan to continue that.”

A rendering of the proposed Convention Center District in downtown Cincinnati.
Proposed Convention Center District in downtown Cincinnati (3CDC)

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