q & a: tony prusak, director of convention sales for medical mart & convention center

As Downtown bustles with construction at the site of the future Medical Mart and Convention Center (MMCC), a different sort of energy bubbles a few blocks away at the offices of Merchandise Mart Properties Inc. (MMPI). The private management organization is tasked with filling the Medical Mart with tenants and booking events for the new Convention Center well in advance of its 2013 completion.

From the local hospitality industry to county taxpayers, all eyes are on the MMPI team as expectations mount. Fresh Water contributor Erin O'Brien sat down with Tony Prusak, Director of Convention Sales for MMPI, to get an insider's view of this highly anticipated project.

At the MMCC January groundbreaking, you announced that 31 clients had signed letters of intent for events. That number has grown to 37. Can you tell us about some of them?

The Rubber Expo left Cleveland in 2006. They have now enhanced their show with an advanced biomedical component and have given us a commitment for 2013, 2015 and 2017. That one exposition will bring in $8.4 million in direct economic impact to Cleveland per year.

This is non-medical, but the Association of Iron and Steel Technology rotated through Cleveland every other year for more than 60 years. They left in 2006 and took that meeting to Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Atlanta. Now they've made a commitment to bring their convention back to Cleveland in May 2015. That event had more than 8,500 attendees with an economic impact of $9.5 million.

I have also received eight blind inquiries about the facility just over the past two weeks from corporations, educational institutions and independent show organizers.

The new convention center will be largely underground occupying approximately the same space as the old one. What's really new?

The ceiling height of the old center was about 17 feet with pillars 30 feet on center, which just doesn't work compared to modern convention centers. The new facility will feature 235,000 square feet of Class A exhibit space with 30-foot ceilings and a minimal amount of pillars. The old facility only had two dock doors. Now we'll have 18 with easy accessibility to move trade shows through.

The other really nice thing we'll have is a 32,000-square-foot grand ballroom with 30-foot windows overlooking Lake Erie, Browns Stadium and the Rock Hall that will accommodate about 2,700 guests.

How do you sell convention space that won't be open for more than two years?

We have fantastic renderings of the facility. We're able to show people exactly what the meeting space is going to look like, but the real secret is selling the vision of what Cleveland is about.

Cleveland is a foodie town. Not every Midwest city has world class restaurants like Cleveland. People are amazed by East 4th Street, Tremont, and the Warehouse District. The new casino is another added amenity to offer our conventioneers, and we have an aquarium on the horizon. Then there's the ease of access getting into greater Cleveland. It's just 30 minutes from the luggage carousel at Hopkins to Downtown. Cleveland is also a very affordable destination.

What's the connection between Cleveland's Medical Industry and a Convention Center?

We have world class professionals at the Cleveland Clinic, Metro, University Hospitals and Saint Vincent Charities. They're speaking at other conventions. These folks are leaving Cleveland and spending money elsewhere. How easy is it to have that medical or health care convention just three or five miles down the street? Very easy.

Consider Cleveland's nursing community. Cleveland Clinic alone has more than 10,000 nurses. I've identified five nurses that hold board positions within their respective nursing associations or societies. Do you think they want to bring their meetings to Cleveland? Probably.

MMPI is based in Chicago. Can you tell us about your personal Cleveland connection?

I'm a 100-percent Polish native Clevelander. My wife and I live in Tremont with our four-year-old twin boys. My great-grandparents immigrated to Tremont in 1907. The bulk of my career has been in Cleveland, but I've been as far west as Yosemite, California and as far east as Worcester, Massachusetts. I've worked in 10 hotels over the course of 19 years. My career has been in hospitality sales and marketing, selling hotels and selling Cleveland and the venues it has.

In the late 90's, I worked for the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Cleveland, which is now known as Positively Cleveland. I handled national trade show sales; promoting the destination, the Convention Center and the I-X Center.

I'm the best person to sell Cleveland.

What is your personal motivation behind this job?

My passion is to create economic impact for people, to ensure people can buy clothes and food and shoes for their kids.

I think about how we can keep people in the hospitality industry working as well as the ancillary working community: people who drive our cabs and work at the airport. When groups come in, it's about seeing that they are buying blocks of tickets to our sports teams. It's about the caterers and the restaurant community here.

It's all about selling more cheeseburgers. That's really what it comes down to.

This project has gotten tough coverage in the media and a lukewarm response from skeptical taxpayers who are picking up the tab. What would you say to them?

I went to Indianapolis last week to attend a convention. The restaurants were filled. You couldn't get into the hotels. You couldn't get a cab. People were walking all over the streets. I see the same thing in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Columbus. That can happen here and it will happen here.

With the leadership we have in this company and in the hospitals, this project is going to be successful. Let's just stop the negativity. Collectively, I believe that we'll all be able to work together and make this city great again.

Photos 1- 5 by Bob Perkoski
- Photos 1 & 2:Tony Prusak, Director of Convention Sales for Medical Mart and Convention Center
- Photos 3 - 5: Recent Construction on the Medical Mart and Convention Center
- Images 6-8: Future Renderings courtesy of the Medical Mart and Convention Cneter

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.
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