Kerry Painter has had a hand in opening great entertainment venues throughout North America, starting with the Fox Theater in Detroit, then moving on to the Detroit Opera House, San Francisco City Hall, Northshore Harbor Center in Louisiana and the Scotiabank Convention Center in Niagara Falls, New York.
She has been with the Cox Business Center since 2014, and is eager to see the renovations planned for the facility when the Vision 2025 money is allocated.
“This time around I will get to renovate Tulsa’s Cox Business Center when the Vision money converts our arena to more convention space and a new grand entrance,” Painter said. “That will be a notable moment for Tulsa’s booming downtown, and I get to be a part of it!” She’s been described as someone who prefers exclamation points as punctuation marks, and she relishes that description.
Painter is known for developing high-performance teams that excel in award-winning facility management and quality service, according to Jinger Belcher, creative service manager at Cox.
“She is highly skilled in strategic thinking, creative approaches, negotiating for winning solutions, sales-oriented results, change management and a collaborative style,” Belcher said. Painter considers her greatest achievements to be through the people she has had the opportunity to mentor and launch into the event venue management.
“I like to think of myself as the spark that lights the fire to be passionate and ever evolving,” Painter said. “Many of my former employees and students are now leaders in the industry and still connect regularly. They ask for advice, references, share accomplishments and some days give me back the inspiration and encouragement that I have given them.” Painter has won numerous awards including the Venues Today Woman of Influence in 2015, Niagara Businesswoman of the Year/Entrepreneur Category in 2012, and the Woman of Distinction for Entrepreneurs Award in 2011.
She also serves on the board of directors for Street School and organized the Cox Business Center partnership with the Tulsa Farmer’s Market and the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma to help farmers fight hunger. Painter advises other women to “Say yes! And to be bold and brave. We short ourselves some amazing life experiences when we are afraid to just jump. Say yes!”
Can you give a brief overview of the Cox Business Center? How has the center developed?
The Cox Business Center, originally Tulsa Assembly Center and formerly Tulsa Convention Center, was built in 1954. It was primarily an arena sitting on 10 acres. The exhibit halls were added in 1983 to create a convention center. In 2002, a ballroom space was added into the building. The ballroom is 30,000 square feet and can be divided into four rooms, or can be used as an entire space.
We have three large casinos with showrooms, as well as some iconic event concert spaces like Cain’s Ballroom. There’s one exhibit hall, which represents about 102,600 square feet of column-free space. We have 14 loading docks, one signage outside for building identification, and concession spaces in the other section.
In 2008, the BOK Center opened across the street. That was truly a catalyst for downtown Tulsa. It changed everything and now it is a busy area with more restaurants, pubs and hotels.
The Cox Business Center is managed by SMG and owned by the City of Tulsa. We have about 98 full-time employees, who all work for SMG.
How many events do you host every year at your facility?
On average, we have about 460 event days per year. Last year there were about 176 events. Approximately 120 of those were repeat events, which had been here before. We see that as a really strong statement for client satisfaction. At the same time, we have added 56 new events.
Do you provide catering and audiovisual services in-house?
We have in-house catering and an extraordinary chef who was actually a Country Club chef for 40 years. He brings food that’s specifically chosen for the client, while still being trendy, interesting, and new. He spends a lot of time with each client on tastings and personalizing. We provide a lot of fine dining, social events and trade shows, so he is an important asset to us.
We have three event planners. Two of them are social event planners that develop the whole package for the client, from floral services to décor. We have an in-house floral division and an internal audiovisual service, but clients don’t have to use them. They can bring in a different audiovisual company, if they want to.
Our Internet service is definitely evolving, as well as the A/V, which we continuously upgrade. We have some really large show production systems. On occasion, we partner with local companies as well, when our show producers create entire shows for the clients. I believe it is a significant service that we can offer at competitive rates.
You are going through a renovation process. What’s going to change about the center?
We just renovated the exhibit halls. We repainted all the walls, redid all the rest rooms, and now some very large events move in there.
The renovation for the new space will begin in July 2018 as part of the Tulsa Vision plan and will cost $55 million. About 38,000 square feet of meeting rooms and conference space will be improved with the renovation.
The shell of the arena will remain unchanged, but the inside will be completely different. We’ll drop a floor in the middle, so the concourse level will become a new floor of about 41,000 square feet, divided in three parts. That will give us a lot more flexibility with a bigger conference and a new ballroom and exhibit space.
We’ll have a new lobby, which will be a three-floor open atrium, and one specifically identifiable grand entrance, which faces the downtown. We do a lot of pre-function events and cocktails in the lobby, but we have been struggling to find spaces for people to just meet or connect one-on-one for a sales conversation. We need a get away space for a break or for doing some business in the lobby, and that’s what we’ll also achieve with the renovation.
Our mission is to finish it in time for Bassmaster. The renovation is expected to be completed in the late fall of 2020. We really hope to attract more conventions, both state and national. We have a really strong philanthropic and social business, as well as a very strong sports market, and now we want to expand our conference market for midweek.
How has the renovation impacted the neighborhood?
It has changed the entire downtown area, which has become much more vibrant. We are not the kind of city, which tears everything down to build new things. There are many repurposed facilities, such as a great mid-century bank, which is now a restaurant.
There are more people in the area now and it feels more alive. The hotels and the places to eat are starting to multiply. The general idea is to look at the smart growth around us and to connect the center to the downtown.
How do you deal with the parking issues?
We have a parking structure of four stories and 1395 spaces, which is more or less attached to the center. There is a surface lot next to it. So, we rarely have a parking issue. The visitors, who stay in any of our hotels, are shuttled back and forth, which works well for meeting planners, because they don’t have to buy transportation to move their people around.
How many hotels and rooms are available in the vicinity of the center?
We have about 14,500 rooms in the city and about 1,600 rooms very close to the center, at a walking distance. We have a courtyard and a gorgeous historic building, as well as some new buildings, which make a great mix The DoubleTree hotel is attached by a walkway already.
Is there a relationship there between the CVB and the facility? What’s the role of CVB in promoting the facility?
Yes, there is. Organizations like Tulsa Sports Commission and Visit Tulsa collaborate with our sales people. We partner a lot on sales efforts and trade shows. They are on committees with us, and we are with them. Our hotel group is also very active and collaborative with us.
CVB tries to focus on the long-term, while we try to focus on the short-term, but we have a great, strong relationship. We see it as one expanded team.
Can you tell us briefly about the master plan?
Connectivity and animation are the two major issues of focus in the master plan. Last year we spent a lot of time doing a study together with the author of Walkable City. It is about what makes people to want to be on a street, to walk and to continue down that street. That had a great impact on us, because we needed to have the feel of joined neighborhoods.
There is a block between us and the downtown that we definitely want to tackle. Some of our renovation will address that with the new front entrance, a new way to walk in, and with more green space, which is quite important.
Animation refers to more outdoor cafes and festivals that make people want to continue traveling down that road to see what’s there. Another part is providing street car transportation on the weekend for visitors who don’t want to walk.
We have a lot of bike shares by our river and we are adding more bike shares downtown, so people can connect further. We also have an extraordinary park called the Gathering Place, which will open next year. It’s a $230 million project on the river for people to enjoy it, while they are here.
Why people should consider Tulsa for their events?
We are centrally located and easily accessible, which is important for the attendance. We have a really great airport, which is only 11 minutes away from us. There are many flights and the weather is nice too.
Recently, we began to tell our story more, so that people would know about the authenticity of the area. We have a lot of music and tons of music stars, authors and writers from here, but visitors are unaware of it. That’s why we started the new branding - to tell a story that wasn’t told well enough in the past.
As successful as our buildings are, we really pride ourselves on never taking that for granted. Even when the event we complete is great, we go out of our way to log what was great, what could have been better, what people love, and how to up that game next time. I think that makes a big difference. Our tag line is “Outrageously Excellent” and we enforce that through everything that we do.
Does your facility focus on being environmentally friendly?
I will admit that’s a newer initiative. Our lighting has been changed over the last few years and there is a lot more concentration on power. For us, power is generated through the electrical grid.
The kitchen has began not just recycling, but also reusing and sharing the leftover food with people who might need it. Visitors who stay in hotels can opt to donate their soaps and shampoos at the information stand, so we can bring them to the shelter, where people need them. We think a lot about the reusing aspect. People leave things behind and we can donate on their behalf or recycle along the way.
Who are some of your repeat clients?
Bassmaster uses our building hugely for exhibition space. They not only take our entire building, but also encompass the whole downtown and we can see a massive economic impact. We bring boats, fishing ponds and sonogram technology, so it is a big, extensive exhibit for them, which is wonderful.
We have a new client called SeneGence, a makeup line that has moved into Oklahoma. Their first event here was last fall with about 5,000 people. They will be back in April with an event for 11,000 people, so they have grown exponentially in a year. SeneGence will be utilizing the arena across the street as well. It will be a full training conference, motivational speaking, feeding all the participants, and a gift store that they set up in the lobby.
We are a philanthropic state, so we organize 18 major fundraisers a year. For instance, the ballet would raise $1.3 million in its event. We are very fortunate to have a strong banqueting staff and the ability to organize such extraordinary events, full of live performances.
Do you attract any of the farm or horticulture-related events?
No, we don’t have any farming-related events. However, there is a pipeline energy expo and an oil recovery conference in April. There is a lot of heavy machinery that shows up in these trade shows, so we need extra strong exhibit hall and loading docks.