Booking a convention hotel when it’s in a pre-construction, construction or renovation phase can require somewhat of a leap of faith. But in the end, it can all work out to your advantage. Just ask Beth Bentley, CMP, LA, director of conferences for the American Lighting Association (ALA), headquartered in Dallas.
Bentley, who has been in the industry for more than 28 years, has booked a number of hotels while they were in their pre-opening phase. “I find I get much better value for our members,” she explains. “I did that with the Wynn and the Encore in Las Vegas, Terranea (Resort) in California and the Grand Hyatt at Baha Mar (opening later this year in The Bahamas). “It’s a great way to get much better concessions and room rates because they need meetings on the books to show their investors and their owners. It’s kind of a win-win situation.”
This September, ALA will host its annual conference at the Omni Nashville Hotel. The 800-room property, which contains more than 80,000 sf of meeting space, serves as the headquarters hotel for Music City Center, Nashville’s new downtown convention center. The Omni opened in September 2013, but Bentley booked it more than a year earlier, in June 2012, for her event that attracts about 575 attendees.
She describes some of the factors that are critical when booking a property pre-opening. “You definitely need to have a good rapport with your salesperson. For me, other than the Omni and the one Hyatt, they were independents, so I couldn’t even look at (a similar property in the chain). So they had floor plans and blueprints. As we learned at the Omni, those can change, so that’s a downside. You can see mockups of what they’re thinking about for rooms. It may not be the exact colors or design, but you can tell what’s going to be upscale and what isn’t.
“As far as pitfalls,” she continues, “I would say you need a very detailed contract. I have an entire page of concessions that I move from year to year. Sometimes I drop things.” She gave the example of eliminating the outdated requirement that phones in the guest rooms have free local calling. “There are things that I’ve added as we’ve gone on. You just have to cover yourself and say (this is what needs to happen) in the event that the space changes, and we’re not happy. This year, at the Omni Nashville, the rooftop was supposed to be large enough for our opening reception and it is not. So we’re working with the hotel, and they’re being very proactive. They’re partnering with us, and we’re going to have to come up with an alternative that works, and then if we have to have a little bit of décor or something, they’ll throw that in because we would have had a beautiful downtown view.”
It’s important to monitor the hotel’s progress as construction moves along, Bentley notes. “I have done many hard hat tours. I have ruined plenty of clothes,” she laughs. She recalls one challenging tour in particular. “It was pouring down rain and red clay was streaming down the street around the hotel, and I had on white linen pants. I fully expected the sales manager to say something like ‘why don’t we just look at a pretty slide show or we’ll pull out the diagrams,’ but no. He tromped through the red water and I tromped right behind him!”
She’s finding it much easier, however, to keep tabs on the progress being made at Baha Mar. “I just liked them on Facebook, and they update photos all the time. I don’t even have to call and bother anyone for photos.”
Bentley also learned the importance of leaving a large enough cushion of time between the hotel’s projected opening date and the date of the meeting. She recounted a situation several years ago when she booked a September meeting at a large property that had opened just a few months earlier. “I would never do that again,” she says. “They were not fully staffed. They were still unpacking china.” She understood why. “They need to open and start making money, and so they’re going full force trying to take care of people that are there, and they don’t have time to work out all of the little bugs and nuances. I would say, in hindsight, no less than six months (after the hotel opens) and a year is even better. I like to visit the property in the season that we’re going. What’s the point of going to look at a property in Virginia if you’re going to meet in the fall, and you go in February when there’s snow on the ground?”
Amanda Thorne is director of housing for J. Spargo & Associates, a full-service event management company based in Fairfax, Virginia, that works with many associations. “We constantly are scouting out the new hotels coming on the market, and we’ll contract with them pre-opening as needed,” she explains. “Typically, we try to not contract with them until they have a firm opening date in place. We’re contracting right now with hotels that are under construction, but they’re far enough along that their projected date is pretty firm. So we stick to the safe side in that respect.”
Some of her clients need to book their meetings years out before a hotel’s renovation plans are even on the horizon. “We do have a clause in our contract that if they do go under renovation and they are not able to honor the room block, that there would be a contingency plan that it would be the responsibility of the hotel to let us know within a certain time frame and assist us in finding an alternate block in a comparable hotel.”
Thorne also likes to maintain a minimum of a several-month gap between the hotel’s opening date and the meeting. “We’re looking for a cushion in case they hit some sort of snag or delay.” Her company also finds that there are some occasions where they need to work a little more closely with the staff of a new hotel versus one that’s established. “We do a lot of citywides, which sometimes are a different beast, so there’s a little more handholding on our end to make sure they do everything correctly and how our client wants it.”
The Illinois Association of Realtors (IAR) will hold its fall conference and expo at the newly renovated Hyatt Regency McCormick Place. The organization booked the Hyatt while the renovation project was just getting underway.
This was no routine “refresh” of a hotel. The $110 million expansion and renovation project included the construction of a new 460-room tower plus renovation of the lobby and all existing 800 rooms. The hotel’s dining outlets also were renovated. The project began in late 2011 and was completed in June 2013.
Kristen Butcher, CMP, IAR’s director of professional development, was not with the organization at the time of the booking, but she fully understands the role that the renovation plans played in the decision. “I do believe it was a big reason why they chose the facility. In our profession, we have members that have high expectations of a property, and we always look for the top tier. Hyatt just has such an amazing reputation that I think it was important that we had a good name behind this conference. This is our first time in many years that we’ve been back downtown in Chicago, so we needed to have a property that just by the name itself was going to speak to what the quality of the property would be.”
She says that communication was key throughout the renovation. “Our event coordinators and sales manager have always kept in communication with us. I come from the hotel world (13 years with the Hilton Springfield), and know what is needed to put that ease and comfort into your planner’s mind. It’s all about the communication and keeping that time line. As we all know, renovations can have hiccups; there are things that your sales manager may promise you that are going to be done but are out of their control. The Hyatt did a very good job of communication. We went in January and did a complete walkthrough, which is nine months prior to our meeting, and the things that we needed done were done.”
“It’s all about the communication and keeping that time line. As we all know, renovations can have hiccups; there are things that your sales manager may promise you that are going to be done but are out of their control.” — Kristen Butcher, CMP
IAR’s 2½-day conference will include 1,200 attendees and 120 exhibits. “Most of the meetings are at McCormick Place,” Butcher notes. “Every year for our annual convention, we do our inaugural ball, which is the inauguration for our incoming president. That ball will be held at the Hyatt in their ballroom. We do have smaller meal functions that we will be holding at the Hyatt, as well.
“I do believe that with the size of the property and with it being connected to McCormick Place, that there was some ease that there was enough alternate space we could have gone to if something wasn’t done. That’s the benefit of being connected to a large convention center.
“It’s also important to have things in writing describing what that completed renovation project is going to be,” she continues. “Budgets can change and construction companies can change, as well. It’s one thing to just have a mockup or a drawing of it, but it’s important to keep communications going with pictures and updates of progress.”
May 1 marked the much anticipated opening of the Marriott Marquis Washington, DC, which is now the largest hotel in the city. The hotel is connected to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center via underground concourse, and has 1,175 rooms, including 49 suites, as well as 105,000 sf of indoor and outdoor event space. It also features five dining outlets, a high-tech concierge lounge and a bilevel health club. Designed to be LEED Silver accredited, the building also incorporates a unique feature: the original historic Samuel Gompers AFL-CIO headquarters, known as the “Plumbers Building.” The new Marriott Marquis is the 4,000th hotel in the Marriott chain.
In January, the city of Irving, Texas, and Mortenson Development Inc. announced that Westin Hotels & Resorts will be the official flagship of a new headquarters hotel being built that will be connected to Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas via skybridge. The 350-room, full-service hotel is expected to open in late 2015.
The Hilton Austin, located adjacent to the Austin Convention Center in downtown Austin, Texas, has embarked upon a $22 million floor-by-floor guest room renovation, scheduled for completion in August to coincide with the hotel’s 10th anniversary. Attendees can walk to entertainment, shopping and dining at the historic Sixth Street Entertainment District, Warehouse District and Second Street District. Built for large groups, the hotel has 800 guest rooms and 80,000 sf of meeting space — including the largest ballroom in the city at 26,000 sf — to complement the convention center’s more than 369,000 sf of exhibit and meeting space.
Construction is well underway on the new JW Marriott Austin, which is scheduled to open in March of 2015. The 34-story hotel is the largest JW Marriott hotel in the U.S. It will contain 1,012 guest rooms and 42 meeting rooms with a total of more than 112,000 sf of event space. Several large conventions have already been booked at the new hotel through 2020.
A new $100 million Hilton hotel located adjacent to the Palm Beach County Convention Center is now under construction. The 403-room Palm Beach County Convention Center Hilton Hotel is currently scheduled to open in 2016.
In late April, a groundbreaking ceremony was held to mark the construction of the largest hotel project in downtown Cleveland, a 28-story Hilton hotel that will feature a rooftop bar and an underground connection to the Cleveland Convention Center and the Global Center for Health Innovation. The Hilton Cleveland/Downtown will include 600 rooms located above four floors containing the lobby, ballrooms, meeting areas and retail space. Plans call for a 2016 opening.
Other convention hotels opening in 2016 include a 1,200-room Marriott Marquis headquarters hotel located next to McCormick Place in Chicago; and a 1,000-room Marriott Marquis in Houston. Slated to open in 2016 in time for the 2017 Super Bowl, the new Marriott Marquis Houston will be connected to the George R. Brown Convention Center via pedestrian skybridge. The Marriott will feature 104,000 sf of meeting, banquet and exhibit space, including Houston’s largest ballroom. A selling point for attendees bringing the kids will be the lazy river on the rooftop.
The 722-room Grand Hotel Spokane will connect by skywalk to the Spokane Convention Center in Washington state when it opens in June 2015. The hotel will offer 60,000 sf of meeting space, including an 18,000-sf ballroom.
The Massachusetts Port Authority and the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority are moving ahead with plans to build a new full-service, 1,000-room headquarters hotel across from the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. The hotel brand has not yet been selected, but companies in the running include Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, MGM Resorts International, Omni and Starwood.
The city of Miami Beach hopes to begin a $500 million renovation of its convention center by 2016 and officials have proposed three possible sites for an adjacent 800-room hotel. One option is the site of the current City Hall and the others are the convention center parking lot and the 17th Street garage. The city is planning to release a bid for hotel developers by the spring of 2015.
This spring, the Portland City Council approved a plan to subsidize the construction of a 600-room Hyatt Regency hotel next to the Oregon Convention Center.
According to a story by Hotelmanagement.net, emerging convention markets are now focused on attracting regional groups. It cites that plans are underway to build a $200 million convention center, hotel and retail area in Corona, Queens, New York. The project, to be built on the site of a former car dealership, calls for 292 five-star hotel rooms to be built above the convention center. The story also reports that plans are moving forward for a proposed 450-room convention hotel near the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines; and that in Oklahoma City, plans are being made to replace the city’s 38-year-old Cox Convention Center with a new $400 million facility.
“As planners, you have to have some faith in your properties, and you have to know their history of going through renovations in the past — if they were able to stay on time,” Butcher advises. “It’s also all about money, too. Are they being funded correctly so that it’s going to get done?”
Finally, she says, planners need to be flexible. “You have to understand that things are going to change. There’s a little bit of a gamble, but it can be a great win-win for you if it all works out because then your group has this amazing property and it’s fresh and new.” AC&F