In May, Merchandise Mart Properties Inc. tapped Brian Casey to lead Cleveland's med mart project. The new GM brings years of experience managing trade shows for medical organizations — he also brings a radically different philosophy to Cleveland's med mart compared to the plans area leaders were sold on in recent years. Below is an excerpt of Scene's conversation with Casey.
Scene: The med mart concept was tried before in Birmingham in the 1990s, and it failed. Nashville is having a hard time getting tenants for a much larger med mart, and a similar project in New York appears to have fizzled. Why will it work here?
Brian Casey: The failure years ago really has no bearing on what we're doing here. The focus here is a smart one because of the cluster of medical business that's here: medical industry, hospitals, educational institutions, and incubators.
Anybody in the medical industry wants additional training and education to keep their accreditation up to speed. There are in excess of 400,000 physicians and medical professionals within a 200-mile radius, so that's a very strong platform.
The concept within the medical mart, I think people may have had it upside down, where the tenants in the building are going to drive the traffic. Our focus here is to establish more of a strength in education and training at a base level. If we're successful in creating this platform, it becomes a driving component for economic development as well.
Scene: In 2009 and '10, it was widely reported that the medical mart tenants would attract conventions. Big-name manufacturers were mentioned. People were given the idea that buyers could come here and look at several different MRI machines and make up their minds which to buy.
Casey: That's exactly what I'm not saying. And the mart is not going to be big enough for that anyway. Nashville's mart wouldn't even be big enough. Medicine has become so specialized, and innovations are happening so quickly, it's hard to keep that fresh.
I think you're still going to have some cutting-edge companies in the med mart. But the key part is that this is not intended to be modeled after marts that show furniture or marts that are design centers. It's a mistake to take a model that works well in one area and try to plug it into an industry that doesn't work that way.
Scene: When the list of tenants was released in January, it was such a mish-mash of companies that it appeared like a PR move just to have something on paper. Was it?
Casey: I would say it wasn't. There was a lot of design. Some have already decided to drop off the list. No one launches these things with a 100 percent perfect idea of how it's going to turn out. This has been going through some re-engineering.
Scene: Has Cleveland Clinic and/or University Hospitals committed to having some of their educational meetings at the convention center?
Casey: We're in some very deep discussions with the institutions: Cleveland Clinic, UH, and Sisters of Charity, and with several others outside of the Cleveland area. If successful, I think these strategic alliances will build a stronger platform for what we're trying to do. Dr. Cosgrove has been a huge supporter of this.
Our primary focus is going to be to bring in as many medical meetings as possible. What concerns me is the expectation that the doors will open and the center will be filled. It's going to take a while.
Existing institutions here are willing to sit around the table with us, set their differences aside, and work with us. We are looking at installing training labs, state-of-the-art technology, and we want to be able to do live feeds in and out of the convention center and med mart. You tie that into a collaboration of the Cleveland Clinic, UH, and Sisters of Charity, and we end up with a business model that is unmistakably stronger than anything you will find anywhere else.
Scene: Will there be a separate business entity formed to lead that effort?
Casey: There's going to be more to look for on that — I guarantee it. There are solid discussions happening right now. This is not a pie-in-the-sky kind of conversation. This is a vision of where we are taking this.
Scene: It's been reported that similarly sized convention centers are not making money. Do you have any concern about the overall convention market?
Casey: No, I've been 30 years in the trade-show business, and it will continue to have relevance. But medical shows tend to become much more specialized, and people will gravitate to those specialities. — Campbell