AQS Lancaster, Part I: Clearing the Air
There was an awful lot of buzz leading up to the AQS Lancaster show, because no one really knew what to expect. There has been a quilt show in Lancaster on or about the weekend before Easter for many years, but this was the first time it was at the brand-spankin’-new Lancaster Convention Center instead of the Lancaster Host Resort, and run by a large national organization rather than a small one-show company.
First off, let me say that I thought that overall, the show was a success and an improvement over Quilters’ Heritage Celebration. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have issues with it, and I’ll get to those in a minute. But this really was a different caliber of show, and the polish and clout that an 800-pound gorilla like AQS brings with it was definitely apparent.
The Lancaster Convention Center is lovely. It just opened in June 2009, and reportedly the quilt show was the largest event it has housed to date. The decor was attractive, the signage was clear, and elevators, escalators, and ladies’ restrooms appeared well-maintained. There were apparently some issues with climate control, but the fact that the outside temperature ping-ponged between sixty and twenty degrees Fahrenheit in the course of the show may have had something to do with that. And while the lighting in the upstairs ballroom was dim, it was still better than what we dealt with at the Host.
However, here’s where I’m going to start to complain. The Lancaster Convention Center is large, but it’s not huge. Building a new convention center in a historic district of a hundreds-of-years-old city is going to bring with it some space constraints, and I’m glad for the residents and taxpayers of Lancaster that the city didn’t build anything bigger that they wouldn’t have been able to keep booked. It’s not enormous, but it’s big enough. Not so, said AQS. They decided they needed more space than existed in the convention center. Thus, they had a satellite location at Liberty Place, and they ran shuttle buses between them. I’m sure they thought this was a fine idea, as one of the remote parking lots was right there at Liberty Place, and people would have to go there to get their cars. Here are my issues with what actually happened in practice:
1) While the convention center contained nearly 240 quilts and 132 vendors, Liberty Place only housed about 35 quilts and 28 vendors. The three special exhibits that were in Liberty Place were perfectly nice and well worth viewing, but there were no competition quilts there, and with the great disparity between the two sites, Liberty Place definitely came off as the red-headed stepchild to the “real” show.
2) At least to my eye, most attendees started at the convention center and went to Liberty Place second. With so much to see and buy at the convention center, that meant that foot traffic at Liberty Place didn’t pick up until late in the afternoon, when people were already tired and broke — if they went there at all. Martelli Enterprises actually packed up their booth Wednesday afternoon (the first day of the show) and left, while being very vocal about their anger and frustration with show management. There were some truly excellent vendors at Liberty (hello, Batiks Etcetera!) but I definitely felt they got the short end of the stick.
3) The shuttle buses between the sites were painfully slow. While I’m sure much of that had to do with the heavy downtown Lancaster traffic, having to stand and wait for a bus for forty minutes really cuts into one’s quilt show time. Add to that another twenty minutes for loading, driving, and unloading, and that’s an hour gone out of an eight hour show. Not to mention there was nowhere to sit or take shelter while waiting, and it was gusty, rainy, and quite chilly at various points during the show. As many quilt show attendees are older and/or have health and mobility issues that make standing in the wind and cold for forty minutes a bad idea, I can certainly see the shuttle bus situation being a deterrent to getting to all aspects of the show.
To my way of thinking, the Liberty Place fiasco was evidence of AQS having gotten greedy. Rather than just making do with the space they had at the convention center, which was ample and in some cases could have been more efficiently used, they added on this satellite location to the satisfaction of nobody. I recognize (and told others!) that this was the first year, that there were bound to be some growing pains, and that hopefully next year’s show will demonstrate a learning curve. To quote Forrest Gump, that’s all I have to say about that.
One more complaint, though, that isn’t about Liberty: local businesses were not prepared for the convention. I don’t blame AQS for this; you can tell businesses that a quilt show is coming, and they’re probably picturing a couple of church buses full of sweet old biddies pulling up to look at the nice blankets and then heading home. They don’t truly know what a quilt show is and what it means until they experience it. BUT: by definition, a number of the people who attend a big quilt show are people who are generally willing to spend a little more for quality and comfort. The convention center food vendors were not really speaking to that (taco salad bar? really?) and yet some of the local restaurants were woefully understaffed in the face of the onslaught of customers fleeing the taco salad and looking for some actual food. Some of the nearby restaurants were even closed on Saturday! My compliments to the poor young harried bartender at the Marriott’s Penn Square Grille, who displayed admirable grace under pressure and served us a delightful lunch. (I recommend the crab bisque.)
Perhaps next year, with some experience under their belts, the restaurants as well as the businesses and historic sites nearby that would be of particular interest to the quilt show attendees will modify their staffing and their hours to accommodate showgoers. It was particularly disappointing that the local museums were only open the same hours as the show, thus preventing teachers and vendors from going at all, and making attendees choose between the museums and time at the show.
Now that I’ve got that out of my system, I feel much better. Next up: quilts!