Anaheim has just joined the million-square-foot club.
The Anaheim Convention Center, already among the biggest facilities in the nation, is adding 200,000 square feet to join only a handful of U.S. cities that can boast at least 1 million square feet of exhibit space.
That's the equivalent of 17 football fields.
"It puts us into rare air of the convention center business," said Jay Burress, president and chief executive of Visit Anaheim, the visitors bureau for the city.
The ceremonial opening of the new addition to the Anaheim Convention Center on Wednesday signals a heating up of the arms race among the country's tourist destinations, which are competing for the biggest and most lucrative conventions and gatherings.
The expansion makes the Anaheim Convention Center the 11th in the country with at least 1 million square feet of exhibit space. McCormick Place in Chicago is the nation's largest convention center, with 2.6 million square feet of exhibit space.
To keep up with the competition, cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego also are looking to expand — for good reason.
The convention and meeting industry generates more than $280 billion in spending per year and employs more than 1.8 million workers. And the industry has been growing thanks to a strong economy and relatively cheap travel costs.
In San Francisco, crews are working on a $551-million expansion to add more than 305,000 square feet of space to the Moscone Center in late 2018. That addition is also expected to bring that facility to more than 1 million square feet of exhibit space.
In Los Angeles, convention center officials have been scrambling to figure out how to proceed with an expansion after plans to build a football stadium in downtown Los Angeles were scrapped two years ago. The NFL stadium would have doubled as exhibition space when not in use for games.
The goal is to add about 200,000 square feet to the facility that now offers 870,000 square feet of exhibit space in two halls — bringing the total exhibit space to more than 1 million square feet.
Officials continue to discuss the proposed expansion plans with AEG, the sports and entertainment giant that developed L.A. Live, the entertainment and retail complex adjacent to the convention center, said Doane Liu, executive director of the Department of Convention and Tourism Development.
AEG also manages the convention center, which is owned by the city. As planned, the expansion would link two giant halls to make the facility more appealing to mega-gatherings, he said.
"Anaheim has always been a formidable rival of ours," Liu said. "This emphasizes the need to move forward with our own expansion, ASAP."
Even without the extra space, the Los Angeles Convention Center had its best run in the 2016-17 fiscal year ended June 30. It hosted 33 large conventions, two more than during the previous 12 months, for an occupancy rate of 74%.
Anaheim, which paid for the current project through a $300-million bond measure, expanded its facility to retain conventions that already are in the city but are growing and need more space. Anaheim also wants to lure bigger gatherings that need a minimum of 1 million square feet of exhibit space.
The city already has booked 75 meetings and conventions in the expanded facility. The new wing, located along Katella Avenue, features a large glass facade and a 10,000-square-foot balcony that bathes the interior with natural light.
"The largest annual shows have really peaked out, and they need more space to remain in Anaheim in the future," Burress said.
Among the biggest gatherings at the Anaheim facility are the National Assn. of Music Merchants and the Natural Products Expo.
With the new addition, Burress said Anaheim may be able to lure some of the large medical conferences that typically book McCormick Place in Chicago.
In San Diego, elected officials are battling over plans backed by Mayor Kevin Faulconer for a 400,000-square-foot expansion at the city's 816,000-square-foot convention center.
The San Diego City Council voted down a proposal in June to hold a special election in November on whether to increase hotel taxes to fund the expansion. The decision could delay a public vote on the project until November 2018.
The San Diego Convention Center has for more than 40 years been hosting ComicCon, a massive gathering of fans of comic book and popular culture. The event now attracts more than 130,000 visitors, but event organizers say they need more space to host the fast-growing gathering.