Hot ‘new’ destinations for meetings and conventions are few and far between. While Seattle has long been utilized for events by Pacific Northwest-based companies such as Amazon and Microsoft, the city’s day in the sunshine may have arrived for meeting planners looking for something fresh and different.
With 431,306 sf of rentable space, the existing Washington State Convention Center (WSCC) — known as the Arch building — has been the smallest meeting facility of any major west coast city, hindering the city’s ability to draw high-profile events. Clearly, Seattle has been ripe for expansion.
“I will say the hills in Seattle are reminiscent of San Francisco. Seattle is a great walking city — especially if you want exercise.” Lynn Stange, RN, BSN, MA, CHC
Last year Seattle approved construction of a second, non-contiguous building for its convention center, the Summit, located two short blocks from the Arch building. The $1.7 billion project will add 570,290 sf of event space to the WSCC, anticipated to be completed in spring 2022. Already, 16 meetings have booked into the new facility, three of which will utilize both the Arch and Summit buildings. Additionally, nine new hotels catering to a divergent audience have opened in Seattle over the past two years, adding 2,500 rooms to the downtown core. The jewel in the crown was the opening of the 1,260-room Hyatt Regency Seattle, the largest hotel in the Pacific Northwest. The year-old hotel is already drawing plaudits from high-profile meeting planners.
“I want to say how impressed I was with the new facility and the team at Hyatt Regency Seattle,” says Mark Schmieding, BILT NA partnership manager at the Digital Built Environment Institute, which operates an annual event series catering to those who design, build, operate and maintain the built environment.
Schmieding adds: “I go to many conferences, and have produced several as a member of the BILT committee. The experience here was my best so far.”
Located in the heart of downtown, the hotel is two blocks from the convention center’s existing Arch building and sits adjacent to the Summit addition. The 45-story Hyatt Regency offers 103,000 sf of flexible meeting and ballroom space and has already enlivened the surrounding pedestrian streetscape and growing convention neighborhood.
Schmieding was particularly impressed by the vertical layout of the building, allowing guests to easily transfer from their hotel room to each conference level. “As an architect, I am particularly critical of design and layout,” he explains. “The design of the conference floors as ‘rings’ with escalators helps with flow and wayfinding. And the location in Seattle is convenient and well located to allow visitors to walk to sites and stores nearby.”
Along with seven other hotel openings, the debut of the Hyatt Regency helped boost the downtown hotel inventory last year by 19%, with an additional 3% increase in rooms projected for this year. Until the new convention center starts to absorb groups, Seattle may be faced with a temporary glut of rooms.
“While demand is increasing, it is not increasing at the same pace as our supply,” says Jena Thornton, a “hotel data junkie” and principal at Seattle real estate firm Kinzer Partners, who adds that local hoteliers are singing the blues. “The years 2019 and 2020 will be tough for occupancies as our hotels absorb the new supply.”
The Hyatt chain holds an enviable position for access to the WSCC. In addition to the Hyatt Regency, the Grand Hyatt Seattle and Hyatt at Olive 8 are also within one block of the existing convention center and the expansion. The Grand Hyatt has a 5,671-sf ballroom, along with a unique indoor amphitheater with raked seating for 159 attendees. Across the street, Hyatt at Olive 8, features a 6,641-sf ballroom. The three hotels work closely to accommodate groups small and large.
Another major meeting hotel is the Fairmont Olympic Hotel, Seattle, which originally opened in 1924 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Fairmont has operated the hotel since 2003 and the hotel underwent an extensive renovation in recent years, updating all guest rooms and meeting facilities, while keeping the hotel’s distinctive character. The hotel has 30,000 sf of meeting space and includes a variety of unique, one-of-a-kind spaces.
This year, Seattle’s landmark Space Needle completed a $100 million renovation that takes the visitor experience to a new level, but also makes the iconic structure a viable option for corporate events. The two-level ‘top house’ can be rented for a memorable event 520 feet above the city, or meeting planners can utilize the SkyLine Level, a private event and banquet space 100 feet off the ground with capacity for 350 guests reception-style or 300 for a banquet. Immediately next door to the Space Needle, the exquisite Chihuly Garden and Glass — under the same management — can be incorporated with the tower for a one-of-a-kind block party for groups of 1,500 or more.
For its sales meeting earlier this year, Cincinnati-based Cintas chose Seattle based on the city’s accessibility to attendees located in the Western U.S. and Canada. “Seattle offered a centralized meeting destination for our teams in Canada, and a short flight from all teams in Oregon and California,” says Brielle Griffin, executive administrator for the vice president of sales at the company’s Northwest Sales Group. “The city is beautiful, and our group really enjoyed being able to walk at night to look at all the good things Seattle had to offer.”
For the 380-attendee gathering, Cintas chose the Sheraton Grand Seattle. “We really enjoyed the fact that the hotel was a short walk from Pike Place, the Waterfront and a short ride from the Space Needle.”
The Sheraton Grand completed an extensive refresh of all guest rooms and common spaces last year which led to being re-flagged with the ‘Grand’ designation. Directly across the street from the convention center, every inch of the hotel’s 75,000 sf function space was renovated. The hotel is renowned for having the largest private art collection on display at a Seattle business and features numerous Dale Chihuly glass pieces. “The Sheraton Grand offered one of the best set-up meetings we have had in many years,” Griffin says. “Usually we are in Reno, using one of the casino hotel conference rooms, but we always seem to run into issues with A/V or seating. For this meeting they had a complete set-up that was seamless and wonderful from start to finish.” Griffin noted that Cintas required a runway and high-level A/V equipment, but the hotel provided a four-man A/V team that was “superb and professional. They were knowledgeable and helped us tremendously — everything went so smoothly.”
“The food exceeded our expectations,” Griffin adds. “They met the dietary requirements with ease as well.”
The one challenge Griffin cites was holding one of the receptions at the hotel’s 35th-floor Cirrus Ballroom. “The elevators were not prepared to handle such a large group moving up and down, and it ended up making our team late for the awards banquet,” Griffin explains. “The Cirrus Ballroom was beautiful, and everyone enjoyed it — it was just not easy to get back down. But as soon as we alerted the staff, they opened the service elevator, and got our teams down ASAP. It was, again, a prime example of their great service offered to our group. The staff throughout the entire hotel was attentive and truly understood how to handle a group of our size.”
Griffin recommends planners working with the Sheraton Grand be specific and clear with expectations and needs upfront. “Be sure you review your banquet event orders closely,” Griffin suggests. “Once you do that, it will run without a hitch. We were very clear on the front end, leading to a truly set-and-forget type of meeting with absolutely no hiccups once we were on-site and rolling. We loved it.”
Enthusiasm for Seattle as a host destination was also a factor for Weatherbee Resources, which had a Regulatory Boot Camp for 88 attendees earlier this year. “Seattle offered a wonderful opportunity to have participants from the Pacific Northwest who would not normally attend an event on, say, the East Coast,” explains Lynn Stange, RN, BSN, MA, CHC, president of Weatherbee Resources, who called the city “a natural fit” for her conference, which was held at the Renaissance Seattle Hotel.
“We also knew that travel into Seattle would be easy for those coming from other areas and that the hotel was well-situated — not only easy access to and from the airport or train station, but also to local entertainment and food. The advantages were numerous: many things to do and see, friendly people, great weather and, of course — great seafood.”
Due to the intensity of Weatherbee’s program, no off-site events were scheduled. The Renaissance features a wide variety of smaller meeting rooms, spread on five different floors. The largest space is the 5,225-sf Courtyard Ballroom, sufficient for a banquet seating 380. “We have worked with the Renaissance in the past and they have always treated us well, so it was an easy decision to book,” Stange says. “We were fortunate to be able to have our event in the hotel meeting area. We loved the meeting rooms, as they were spacious and easy to access from the hotel rooms. The catering was very well done and the food was delicious, and the event staff was professional and easy to work with. We made use of their technology, and although I recall there were some issues with the Wi-Fi, we were able to work around that.”
The hotel’s main eatery, The Fig & The Judge Market Restaurant, was open for breakfast and lunch only at the time. “So we went out for meals,” Stange says. “This ended up being fine as we got to experience more of the city. I will say the hills in Seattle are reminiscent of San Francisco. Seattle is a great walking city — especially if you want exercise.” Stange adds that guest rooms were “divine.”
“They were well furnished, quiet, had nice views, were spacious and clean,” Stange says. “I would definitely return to the Renaissance for personal travel.”
Just 25 miles from Sea-Tac Airport, Tacoma is Washington’s third-largest city, with a population of 200,000. The Greater Tacoma Convention Center offers 119,000 sf of combined meeting and pre-function space, with floor-to-ceiling views of downtown. Hotel Murano, named after the glass-blowing capital of Italy, currently offers the bulk of rooms adjacent to the convention center, along with more than 30,000 sf of flexible meeting space ranging from classroom to theater-style spaces and a ballroom.
Next year, the number of rooms within walking distance of the convention facility swells as Marriott’s Tacoma Convention Center Hotel nears completion. The four-star property will be the first hotel attached to the convention center, connected on the ballroom level by a grand promenade. When it opens in fall 2020, the 23-story hotel will have a 10,000-sf ballroom plus seven breakout rooms totaling 9,000 sf.
Trading Mt. Rainier views for those of Mt. Hood, Portland, Oregon is also experiencing a hotel boom that is helping to reposition the city as a top meeting and convention destination. The hotel room inventory for the city center is projected to reach 10,000 rooms by spring 2020, an increase of 40 percent since 2015.
While many of the recent hotel openings in Portland target business travelers and the leisure market, the Hyatt Regency Portland at the Oregon Convention Center, opening in December 2019, will help put the city’s convention stature on better footing. The hotel will feature 39,000 sf of meeting and event space, including a 11,822-sf ballroom. The hotel is centrally located in the Lloyd District, with high-end restaurants and breweries nearby, plus ample public transportation access.
The Oregon Convention Center itself is now completing a $40 million, 14-month renovation to update the 30-year-old building, the largest convention center in the Pacific Northwest, sprawling more than 1 million sf. The interior design will bring the aesthetic of Oregon landscapes inside, replete with local accents such as lichen-like carpets and forest-canopy ceilings. The building is now more energy efficient, and the renovations enhance ADA accessibility with the addition of a connector corridor between the original building and the previous expansion. The final phase of the renovation was an extensive update to the 25,000 sf Oregon Ballroom, completed just recently.
Construction software company Viewpoint may have its world headquarters based in Portland, but for its annual Collaborate Conference, the company found hosting the event in its home city meant employees could attend the 2,600-attendee event last year without busting the travel budget.
“Portland is a great city for meetings,” says Scott Sward, CCTE, GLP, GTP, Viewpoint’s global travel and meetings manager. “Attendees really enjoy themselves here, and we have had really good feedback in past years. Many attendees come to Portland the week before to explore the city. We have numerous dinners around the city during the week, and attendees always say they enjoy the food scene in Portland.”
But there’s one other advantage for Viewpoint meeting in Portland: It’s tax-free. “A tax-free city allows us more budget to spend on attendee experience,” Sward says. “Moving to another city would mean we would have to cut some experiences.”
Viewpoint used two hotels for the bulk of its attendees: Portland Marriott Downtown Waterfront and the Hilton Portland Downtown. “We needed large blocks and these hotels worked well with us,” Sward says. “Basically, they had to let us block the entire hotel and have space large enough for a large party as well as ample space for pre-conference labs and meetings as well as additional space for receptions during the week. Both are also prominent in the downtown area, and give our attendees not only a good hotel experience but also easy access to all that downtown Portland has to offer.”
Sward continues: “We have our welcome party at the Marriott Waterfront; our final customer appreciation party is at the Hilton. Both hotels have excellent catered food. The service is amazing — they really care about you and your event, and they are great partners.”
Sward lauds the Oregon Convention Center, where sessions and workshops were held. “They are very easy to work with and very accommodating,” he explains. “It’s an excellent facility and you can have a great meeting without feeling lost as you might in a city like Las Vegas or Orlando. And the food is some of the best convention center food I have ever had.”
One challenge Sward notes is the location of the Oregon Convention Center in relation to downtown, where most hotels are found. “Attendees are apprehensive at first when they hear they have to ride the train to the convention center,” he says. “But after they do it they find it easy and convenient.”
The Pacific Northwest region extends inland to Idaho, and downtown Boise has seen the addition of nearly 600 hotel rooms in recent years, bringing the total to nine properties with 1,275 rooms within walking distance to Boise Centre. Additionally, the long-standing Red Lion Hotel Boise Downtowner is scheduled for a complete overhaul that will include a flag change to Marriott’s Delta Hotels brand. The planned $10 million makeover will include a total renovation of all guest rooms with completion expected in 2021.
Boise Centre has also seen a facelift. Last year a renovation boosted space from 50,000 sf to 86,000 sf, with 31 meeting rooms available. Boise can now accommodate groups up to 1,600 attendees as well as multiple smaller groups at the same time. Although Boise is most commonly linked to events for associations, the city was centrally located for the member companies operating the Western Gas Measurement Short Course, (WGMSC) an educational conference that drew 525 attendees earlier this year.
“All members of the WGMSC are employees of Western U.S. and Canadian natural gas utilities and transportation companies,” explains Tim Wold, 2019 chairman of the WGMSC, an event that provides classes by industry experts for employees of the natural gas industry. “The Boise airport has nonstop travel for many of our member companies and the airport is only minutes from downtown Boise.”
Wold continues, “The Boise Centre had just recently completed an expansion, and the added square footage allowed us to offer more classes and vendor space. We had plenty of space for our group of 525 attendees and for the 103 vendor booths in the main convention hall. The A/V staff set up each classroom with a projector, screen and microphone for the speakers, and I was given a radio to contact A/V, catering or the operation staff if anything was needed or to be changed. I was also given a lapel pin to wear so the staff knew that I was the point person for the convention.”
“Breakfast and lunch buffets at the Boise Centre were well received by the attendees and the prices were very affordable,” Wold adds. “The staff had water and coffee stations by the classrooms and during breaks snacks were available in the main convention hall. Along with our board members, I was very impressed by the professionalism of the entire Boise Centre staff, from front office to wait staff.”
Wold says vendors used downtown restaurants to dine with their customers each night. “One vendor rented the JUMP Center (Jack’s Urban Meeting Place) next to the Boise Centre for dinner and a Japanese drum and dance show,” Wold says. “I attended some of the dinners and had great food and fun, and there were great comments on restaurants from the other attendees that I talked with during the event.”
Wold noted one challenge Boise presented to some attendees: The limited number of nonstop flights from the east. “Several vendors flying in from the East Coast area had a long day,” he explains. But the benefits outweighed the inconveniences. “The main advantage of Boise as a destination is the commitment of the convention center, the hotels, the restaurants and the city to make sure everyone attending is wanting to come back.”C&IT