Convention delegates can benefit from a great variety of hotel developments and improvement projects. Even a guest room or public space renovation at a small, economy property can be welcome, if that hotel is part of the event’s overall lodging package. But for most planners of large association meetings, the kind of hotel development that really grabs their attention is the new “headquarters” hotel: a sizable, upscale property that is connected or proximate to the city’s convention center. Fortunately, there are several such projects in the country today, either recently completed or on the horizon.
Second-tier cities introducing convention hotels include Des Moines, Irving, Texas, Kansas City, Louisville, Nashville and Portland, Oregon. First-tier examples include Miami and Houston, where the new Marriott Marquis Houston debuted last December. Connected by skybridge to the George R. Brown Convention Center, the 960-room property was a boon to the February installment of the American Heart Association’s International Stroke Conference.
“The city’s adding another large hotel to the convention center hotel package made it more convenient for our attendees,” says Emily Whitzel, director, scientific and corporate meetings for the AHA. “We try to house our attendees near the convention center so they can either walk or spend very little on transportation.” The conference brought in about 5,600 delegates, many of whom were already quite familiar with the Marriott brand through previous AHA meetings. “We have a national account with Marriott, and we have been very happy with the various hotels we use each year for our International Stroke Conference and our Scientific Sessions,” says Whitzel.
Houston’s new addition to the Marriott portfolio made a great first impression, she adds. “It is always great to have a new hotel that is clean, crisp and up to date. The hotel had every one of the amenities that our attendees need, plus more. The various restaurant options are always a plus. The guest rooms were super clean and quiet,” Whitzel comments. The Marriott Marquis Houston offers 153,724 sf of total meeting space across 52 meeting rooms, complemented by recreational amenities such as a Texas-shaped lazy river, infinity pool and full-service Pure spa.
One of the most vibrant Texas meeting scenes is Austin, where a new Fairmont hotel will complement the 1,012-room JW Marriott Austin, which opened in 2015 near the Austin Convention Center. Last December, construction began on the $6 million Red River Canopy Walk that will connect the Austin Convention Center to Fairmont Austin. Opening in September, the Fairmont will house 1,048 guest rooms and nearly 140,000 sf of total meeting space.
Groups also can take advantage of an upgraded Hilton Austin. The 801-room hotel completed a $23 million renovation to its 80,000 sf of meeting space, lobby and restaurants last year. The renovation has redesigned the lobby to include social and work spaces, as well as a new digital media wall. Last summer, two new restaurants were added: Cannon + Belle and The Reverbery. The Reverbery, ideal for special events, is a recording studio-themed banquet hall complemented by outdoor space. A specially designed food and drink menu reflects Austin’s culinary culture. Two more establishments were introduced last fall: the Austin Taco Project, located a block off Austin’s music “Main Street,” and a 3,000-sf Starbucks with an Austin motif.
And in late 2018/early 2019, the 350-room Westin Irving Convention Center Las Colinas is scheduled to open adjacent to the 17-acre Irving Music Factory. The hotel will offer 16,000 sf of meeting space.
In March, the Association of American Colleges and Universities met in Jacksonville, Florida, for a national conference examining issues of diversity, equity and student success on college campuses. The hotel of choice was the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville, which had recently completed a multimillion-dollar renovation of all 951 guest rooms, corridors, the rooftop fitness center and Regency Club lounge. “Our guests enjoyed Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront and liked the hotel’s staff very much,” says Karen Kalla, director of network for academic renewal with the AACU. She adds that “The meeting rooms all met our needs very well. The larger-sized meeting rooms were amenable to our preferred room set using round tables.” The renovation included a small meeting space expansion, with six new hard-walled meeting rooms added to the fourth level of the hotel’s Terrace Building. Overall, the Hyatt offers more than 116,000 sf of function space, which comfortably accommodated the AACU’s 550 delegates.
Orlando is a major reason why the Southeast’s hotel industry is so active. Demand spurs development in this first-tier city, where groups can take advantage of a redesigned Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort. This venerable property has invested $140 million into the transformation of all 2,267 guest rooms and the renovation of its more than 329,000 sf of meeting space. The final component of the project will be a $12 million lobby redesign projected for completion in the fall. Other significant hotel improvement projects in the “Theme Park Capital” include the construction of a new 500-room tower at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort over the next two years; the complete refurbishment of all 1,501 guest rooms and suites at Rosen Shingle Creek; and a 100,000-sf expansion of the Osceola County Conference Center at Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate to be completed this fall.
Recently expanded meeting space is available at Orlando’s Westgate Lakes Resort & Spa. The 2,300-villa, luxury condominium resort now offers a total of 36,000 sf of meeting space after a 20,000-sf addition. Completed last year, the meeting space affords 360-degree views of Orlando, including the Orange County Convention Center and the nightly fireworks from Central Florida’s theme parks. A 500-car parking garage was also added.
In November, the Direct Action and Research Training Center (DART), a national network of 22 affiliated grassroots, nonprofit, congregation-based community organizations, utilized the new meeting space for a lay leaders training event addressing problem areas in their communities. Leah Woodward Wiley, development and leader training for DART, sourced the Westgate through HelmsBriscoe. “Not only did Westgate have the best deals, but I really like how their rooms are set up for our group. All the meeting space is on the seventh floor, so for those who have walking issues there are no challenges getting (to different breakout rooms) for different pieces of our agenda.” Based on these logistical advantages and the proactive service Wiley commends, DART has signed a two-year contract with the Westgate. “When I’m working with a staff that’s all about service and also loves their job, I always want to go back, especially if the meeting space is perfect,” she concludes.
About three years from now, planners can look forward to the debut of both a Marriott Marquis and a convention center in Miami, Florida. MDM Group recently acquired the former site of the Miami Arena as part of the plan to build the Marriott Marquis Miami Worldcenter Hotel & Expo Center. The first phase of the project would include a 600,000-sf conference and exposition center, along with 1,100 hotel rooms; a second tower would house 600 hotel rooms. It’s just one of many significant hotel developments in the Southeastern United States creating opportunities for association groups.
Groups also can find exceptional service and meeting space in South Carolina at the Myrtle Beach Marriott Resort & Spa at Grande Dunes. This spring, the property completed a $14 million makeover of its 405 guest rooms, including new furnishings, soft goods, new 50-inch smart TVs, luxurious walk-in showers and more. The hallways on the resort’s 11 floors were recarpeted and updated as well. “They really did a nice job; the rooms really look good. In all hotels, if you don’t do room renovations every five to six years, it gets worn-looking,” observes Nilda Padgett, director of meeting services/meeting planner with the South Carolina Association of Counties, which has been meeting annually at the hotel for six years. Held in January, the two-day event brings in about 145 insurance trust members and risk managers for training sessions within the hotel’s 45,000 sf of meeting space. “We use a good bit of the ballroom because we have to set up classroom style for this meeting. And then we switch over to the evening function, where we do an oyster roast indoors,” Padgett relates. The staff adds complimentary décor elements to the function to “make it beachy,” she says, thus allowing the group to avoid weather issues outdoors in January.
The hotbed of hotel development in this part of the country is arguably National Harbor, Maryland, where the MGM National Harbor opened last December. The 308-room resort offers groups the 50,000-sf MGM National Harbor Conference Center, complemented by a 3,000-seat theater, three celebrity-chef restaurants among 15 dining options, high-end retail establishments and a spa. The longstanding option for groups in National Harbor is the 2,000-room Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, a AAA Four Diamond property that recently enhanced its meeting space with the new 16,000-sf RiverView Ballroom. The venue provides unobstructed views from its 270-degree floor-to-ceiling windows, and boasts two outdoor terraces equaling more than 10,000 sf of space. The resort now offers five ballrooms and more than 600,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space.
The 453-room Westin Nashville, which opened last fall, eased lodging logistics for the American Animal Hospital Association’s annual meeting, March 30–April 2. “It adds another full-service, known brand to downtown. It helped me to reduce the amount of sleeping rooms contracted with perimeter hotels that required shuttle-bus service, thus reducing my transportation expense,” explains Chuck Potter, CMP, senior manager, conference, meetings and expositions with the AAHA. “The downtown now offers a blend of hotels at various price points, which made this destination attractive and affordable for our attendees.” The group had a block of 180 rooms on peak nights at The Westin, which offers 20,000 sf of meeting space. Convention groups meeting at Nashville’s Music City Center also will be able to take advantage of the 533-room JW Marriott Nashville, scheduled to open next summer. Housing 50,000 sf of flexible meeting space, the property will be located just steps from Music City Center. Highlights include Bourbon Steak, a Michael Mina Restaurant as well as a rooftop bar on the 33rd floor.
The 612-room Omni Louisville Hotel, just one block from the Kentucky International Convention Center, will offer 70,000 sf of LEED Silver-certified meeting space when it opens next spring.
In 2019, an 800-room Hyatt convention hotel with about 75,000 sf of meeting space is expected to open across from the Kansas City Convention Center Grand Ballroom.
The Iowa Events Center (IEC) in Des Moines sports a direct connection to a new-build Hilton, which officially opens next April. The 330-room Hilton Des Moines Downtown has its own 14,000 sf of function space, including a 10,000-sf ballroom. Amenities include a signature restaurant, heated indoor pool and complimentary fitness center. “We hope and plan to use the hotel for the majority of our room blocks for our annual meeting in October moving forward,” says Joah Hogan, senior director of education services for the Iowa Hospital Association.
Becky Anthony, senior V.P., education, adds, “We’re pleased to be able to provide our members the convenience of having lodging just steps away from the IEC.” The IHA most recently met at the Iowa Events Center for its 2016 annual meeting, bringing in 1,700 attendees, vendors and speakers. “We will be evaluating the hotel’s meeting space for events that we don’t already have contracted; it’s been included in recent RFPs,” says Anthony. “Looking ahead, we are planning to use the hotel for our biggest room block for the IHA Annual Meeting and also considering how we might be able to utilize space in the hotel for special events held in conjunction with the meeting.”
Las Vegas is home to three convention centers and a multitude of hotels with massive meeting space. But given its perennial popularity with convention groups, more space is always welcome. The 4,004-room Aria Resort & Casino is investing $154 million to expand its LEED Gold-certified convention center, adding 200,000 sf of high-tech, flexible meeting space by February 2018. Post-expansion, Aria will house more than 500,000 sf of meeting space.
MGM Grand recently broke ground on a 250,000-sf expansion of its conference center on all three levels. Scheduled for completion in fall 2018, the new space will include two large ballrooms spanning 49,000 sf and 32,000 sf, three junior ballrooms and an outdoor event space. When complete, the expansion will give MGM Grand a total of 850,000 sf of meeting and convention space. As part of the expansion, Stay Well Meetings — the industry’s first-ever wellness meetings experience, which launched at the hotel in 2014 — also will expand its footprint by 22,000 sf and encompass the conference center’s entire second floor.
Farther out West, the Hyatt Regency brand is bringing associations exciting new site options. This summer, Seattle welcomes the Hyatt Regency Lake Washington at Seattle’s Seaport, a 347-room resort 11 miles from downtown Seattle and nine miles from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The property offers 60,000 sf of indoor/outdoor function space, including 23,000 sf of outdoor terraces with panoramic views of Lake Washington.
In Portland, the Hyatt Regency Portland is scheduled to debut in 2019 adjacent to the Oregon Convention Center. The 600-room hotel will have its own 32,000 sf of meeting space and is expected to achieve LEED certification.
In 2014, Portland hosted the Entomological Society of America’s annual meeting, convening more than 3,400 attendees at the Oregon Convention Center — ESA’s second-highest attendance ever. The group utilized the DoubleTree by Hilton Portland as its headquarters hotel, but the property’s location (four blocks from the OCC) was not ideal, remarks Rosina M. Romano, CMP, director of meetings for ESA. The new Hyatt will remedy that drawback, she says. “It’s always been on my radar to rebook the space since we had such a great meeting there. So I was waiting to get a headquarters hotel much closer.” What is more, the group has already had a great experience with the Hyatt Regency brand in Minneapolis, and will partner with the Hyatt Regency Denver for this year’s meeting in November. Regarding a return to Portland, she says, “I know the convention center very well, and I know the city very well. So as long as (the Hyatt) is able to meet what we need for breakout space for committee meetings across the street, and the Hyatt can show us some really great diagrams, I’d be confident in booking without going for a site visit.”
But there may well be added competition for planners looking to book the OCC, given the city’s projection of a 30 percent increase in meetings business with the new hotel. “It’s definitely possible they could hit that increase,” says Romano. “It could lead to increased competition, and that’s why I’m itching and ready to go.” AC&F