Q&A: Pennsylvania Convention Center’s John McNichol

The Drexel Hill native is one the architects behind the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.



Photo by Tessa Marie Images

Thanks to Pope Francis, our region has received it fair share of international attention over the past year. It will continue to do so this month when the Democratic National Convention comes to town. Looming large in all of this is Drexel Hill native John McNichol. The Villanova University grad took over as president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority in March 2014. 

MLT: What will the influx of visitors be like during the DNC? 

JM: We’re expecting 35,000 people who normally aren’t here. When the World Meeting of Families was here, we had about 5,000 credentialed media. We could see as many as 20,000-25,000 in Philadelphia for the DNC, in addition to visitors. 

MLT: What kind of impact will the DNC have moving forward? 

JM: We’ve been very blessed—pun intended. We had the World Meeting of Families, which put us on an international stage. We’re going to back it up with the largest political event this year. Top CEOs from all of the major companies from around the world will likely be in town for the DNC. If they hadn’t thought of Philadelphia before, they could potentially relocate a company or a satellite office here. Plus, there will be a potential increase in casual tourism. You can’t put a dollar value on that. 

MLT: There have been a lot of struggles with unions since you took office. How have you dealt with them? 

JM: It was apparent to us that, if we continued to go down the path we were on, we were not competitive and had very little prospects for the future. It really came down to a simple equation: Change or die. We were literally at a threshold of having to decide whether to sell the convention center to a condominium developer or make good on the promise to the taxpayers of the commonwealth. It took 18 months of negotiations with six unions, but that model is working really well. 

MLT: How did you win back business?

JM: We had very complicated work rules for exhibitors and customers. They couldn’t use a small stepladder, a battery-operated drill, stock their own shelves within their booths, very simple things. We changed those rules, which now makes us competitive with those other facilities around the country. We opened up exhibitor rights. 

MLT: How are things going now? 

JM: Working in partnership with the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau, collectively we’ve put together about $1.3 billion worth of economic development for the region between 2014 and 2021. That’s maybe 60 percent higher booking than we’ve ever experienced. It’s all about the product: the city and the region.

MLT: What’s next? 

JM: The American Heart Association is coming here in 2019. That show will have an economic impact approaching $70 million. In terms of infrastructure, we’re evolving, putting a lot of capital into IT, broadband wireless systems, and redundant backup systems for our Wi-Fi. It’s a very smart, very green building. We’re doing everything we can to convert some of the older operating systems into cleaner and greener technologies. 

MLT: What was your goal for the convention center when you took over?

JM: In 2011, there was a concerted effort by the board to change the administrative model and renegotiate all of our labor contracts. As one of the architects, I had to make a fairly significant life decision to take over as CEO, but I believed so much in the opportunity. My goal was to make sure the transition was executed in the best interest of the commonwealth and the region’s hospitality industry. Convention centers are built to serve as an economic engine for the regional economy. Our goal is to continue to grow the 67,000 hospitality jobs to as large a number as possible.

MLT: Was it hard to get people back after the struggle with the unions?

JM: No. They love Philadelphia. For them, it’s all about the attendee experience. They want to be in a place where people can walk to great hotels, great restaurants, historic Philadelphia, and the arts and culture. They wanted to be here, they just couldn’t make financial sense of how to be here.

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