Lacking a conference center? Why not a tent?

City officials intrigued by unconventional solution to hosting more conferences

Small cities the size of Durango lose money building and maintaining convention centers, but as a tourist destination, Durango could attract more business if it could host more conferences.

The solution might be to pitch a tent.

“It’s a perfectly good half-baked idea,” said Bob Kunkel, executive director of the Durango Business Improvement District.

Officially speaking, Kunkel clarified that “the city currently has no plans to buy a tent.”

Still, city officials are intrigued at the thought of obtaining the kind of tent commonly seen at corporate functions, celebrity weddings and sporting events such as Professional Golf Association tournaments.

Durango is not a “player in attracting conventions of a certain size because we lack the facility,” Kunkel said.

He noted that 85 percent of conventions accommodate 600 or fewer people.

“So it’s not like you need something for 5,000 to accommodate the Democratic Convention,” Kunkel said.

Kunkel imagines the city could leave up the tent for months at time at a central location such as the corner of Camino del Rio and College Drive, where it would be accessible to downtown hotels.

Durango will get to test how well these tents perform when it hosts a gala dinner for 300 at Fort Lewis College during the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in August,

Its tent had better be nice because Pro Cycling is expecting an “appropriate venue” with floral arrangements, professional staffing, entertainment and a VIP reception area, according to the specifications laid out in the city’s contract for hosting the race.

To think of it as a tent in the conventional sense is not fair because it can be outfitted with hardwood floors, chandeliers, restrooms and air conditioning, Kunkel said. Because it is supported by a frame, there are no poles in the middle.

Experience has shown Kunkel that a tent is not necessarily a step down in class.

“I came from Vail, where we would host things like the Jerry Ford Golf Invitational,” Kunkel said. “You know, President Ford was not going to appear in a circus tent under any circumstances.”

John Fuchs, general manager of Anchor Industries Inc., which manufactures tents from 60 to 80 feet wide with lengths that expand to the customer’s specifications, said a wedding planner once told him that he can turn “a tent into a ballroom and a ballroom into a tent.”

During the planning for the Pro Cycling Challenge, officials wondered if it made financial sense to buy instead of rent. Tents this large must be shipped in from a big city such as Albuquerque or Denver.

If Durango hosts many more large events, the feeling was that, “Hey, we should have bought this darn thing. We would have been halfway to owning it by now,” Kunkel said.

If the city split the cost of a $300,000 mega-tent with other groups such as the college or the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, the loan payments could be affordable, he said.

It is not very common but not unusual, either, for local governments to invest in these tents, said Fuchs.

The cost can range from $8 to $20 per square foot. All the amenities, such as the hardwood floor and chandeliers, are extra because Anchor is just the tent manufacturer.

One challenge local governments face is that the tents require a lot of technical know-how to assemble, disassemble and maintain, Fuchs said.

Relying on the instruction book is not going to work, he said.

Kunkel appreciates that building up a convention business is not as easy as simply obtaining the accommodations. There are other factors that come into play. For example, because Durango is a remote location, it also would have to expand its air service, he said.

Like pitching a large tent, some assembly is required.

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