Survival Guide: Lewis Dawley , general manager and chief executive officer, Washington Convention Center Authority

Lewis Dawley

What is any building, but a "system of systems?" And the bigger the building, the more systems are involved and the greater their complexity.

Few people know that as well as Lewis Dawley, general manager and chief executive officer of the Washington Convention Center Authority. Since May 1997, Dawley has been overseeing development of the new $833 million convention center, which will host FOSE as its first trade show from April 8-10. FOSE is owned by PostNewsweek Tech Media, publisher of Washington Technology.

While overseeing construction of the facility, Dawley also is managing the operations of the existing convention center.

This is the fourth time that Dawley has been involved with opening and operating a new convention center. He was general manager of the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority, where he developed a strategic operational plan for the opening of the 1.3 million-square-foot facility and directed day-to-day operations. He also opened and operated Detroit's COBO Convention/Exhibition Center, where he was general manager from 1977 to 1989, and the Minneapolis Convention Center, where he was director of operations from 1989 to 1991.

He spoke with Washington Technology Staff Writer Patience Wait about the complexity of managing a large construction project.

WT: How long have you been working on the Washington Convention Center?

Dawley: I've been here six years. I came from the convention center in Philadelphia. This is the fourth one I've done -- I'm a glutton for punishment.

WT: What is the hardest part of this kind of project?

Dawley: I've been doing this for probably the last 20 years. When you build these buildings, you almost need a crystal ball to look out and see what's going to be important to people. I remember when people cared about telephone lines and telephone switches, and now it's all about wireless communications. ... We're building this in the time period where we have all the latest technology, but we also have to predict what's going to be needed in the future.

We have a ton of consultants [to advise us]. The goal is to make this a state-of-the-art convention center. The flexibility is also important for us, because we're really a meetings destination, such as medical meetings, not trade shows.

We have included all the latest technology today, and we've done the best we can to predict the future. We also made adjustments to allow the flexibility as things change. It's in how we wired the building. For instance ... we ran conduit more than probably was necessary. We've got miles and miles and miles of cabling.

WT: Just how complicated is it to coordinate all the systems needed?

Dawley: You've got a building that's six city blocks, 2 million square feet, with electrical systems, telecommunications systems, life safety systems, audio-visual systems, to name a few. They all have to be coordinated as you build the building, so they don't just run into each other.

WT: How has the project gone overall, now that the end is in sight?

Dawley: The contractor has done a great job. It's really three buildings in one. The way the building is constructed, because of where it's located in a historic business and residential community on the edge of downtown, they made design changes so it would look like three buildings instead of one [gigantic one]. The north end is 40 feet below the south end, for instance, because it's in a residential neighborhood. 

WT: As we talk, the convention center is just two weeks from the opening of the first major show, FOSE. How does it look?

Dawley: Things look great. We had an opening reception [March 23] for the World Skating Championships, with 800 people. Then [March 29] there's an opening gala for 3,000 people.

Every one of these projects I've done, they all require the same thing; it's not like building an office building or a residential building, where you can say, "It's going to take a couple of weeks longer." We book these events in here, we make commitments to clients to get this done.

WT: Once the convention center is open, what are you going to do?

Dawley: I'd like to stay for a while, if they'll have me. Just opening the doors is not the end. I'm really focused on developing a real world-class customer service environment. My real background is in operating convention centers [and] what happens inside, the beauty of the bricks and mortar and artwork. It's just as important that you have the right attitude.

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