When it comes to reputation management and weather, some cities face an uphill battle. San Francisco is known for its fog, Chicago is the Windy City.
For Seattle, the first thing most of us think of is rain, and who needs showers interfering with transportation and outdoor events during a meeting? “That’s our foremost misconception — that it rains here all the time,” says Wendy LeBlanc, director of sales and marketing for the newly opened Embassy Suites Seattle Downtown Pioneer Square. “In fact, we actually get less than Atlanta.”
Yes, Seattle gets 38 inches of rain annually. But by comparison, Atlanta averages 50 inches of rainfall annually, Orlando gets 53 inches and New Orleans sees 63.5 inches of precipitation annually. Boston, Houston, Miami and Washington, DC, also experience higher average rainfall than Seattle.
“We do have the drizzle, but I think it makes Seattle people more creative,” LeBlanc adds. “And there’s no place I’d rather be in summer.”
Californian by birth, LeBlanc moved to various corners of the Pacific Northwest from Las Vegas in 2003, and she’s a certified booster for the area that extends from northern California to Vancouver, and into Idaho, a region sometimes called Cascadia.
“You have this amazing diversity of ecosystems,” explains LeBlanc. “Mountains and islands, water and desert, green and lush. That means you’ve got skiing, kayaking, horseback riding and all the outdoor elements, but you can pair it with the wine country, abundant seafood and cultural elements.
“Our attractions are so authentic — the biggest in Seattle is Pike Place Market,” LeBlanc adds. “This is a real community place, for visitors and residents alike — you’re rubbing shoulders with the locals.”
For visitors, the outdoor environment and cultural fare has always been there, but for meeting planners who might have previously skipped over the city, Seattle is just getting ready for its close-up, with a series of developments that will avail more beds and more real estate for the Washington State Convention Center (WSCC).
“We continue to turn away more business than we can accommodate,” explains Tom Norwalk, president and CEO of Visit Seattle. “The growth and enhancement of supply and infrastructure around the region has been long overdue.”
The city recently received a long-awaited green light to construct a second, non-contiguous building for its convention center. The existing WSCC has been the smallest facility of any major West Coast city, so the added square footage is vital for keeping the Seattle meeting and convention business competitive. Construction breaks ground in July 2018, with an anticipated completion date in 2021.
“It gives us a lot of flexibility,” says Norwalk. “It’s a building of slightly larger size, and it will allow us to do two meetings simultaneously.”
Additionally, eight hotels catering to a divergent audience are opening in Seattle this year. The additional 2,431 rooms will represent a 20.5 percent increase in inventory for the city.
Among them is LeBlanc’s Embassy Suites Seattle Downtown Pioneer Square, which opened its doors March 28 in the city’s oldest neighborhood, 1.5 miles from the convention center. The 282-room hotel features a six-story atrium — ideal for receptions — and nearly 10,000 sf of meeting space, including a 7,433-sf pillar-free ballroom.
“Hilton didn’t really have a huge presence in Seattle, so this was a way for them to make a big splash,” says LeBlanc. “We’re a flagship for the new design of Embassy Suites, and it’s a completely unique experience.”
Also new for Hilton and part of the Curio Collection is The Charter Hotel. Debuting in July and located just a block from Pike’s Place Market, the 229-room hotel features 10,000 sf of flexible meeting space, a 2,500-sf fitness center, an Argentine restaurant focused on locally sourced meats, fish and seasonal produce, and the Fog Room, a 16th-floor rooftop lounge.
Twelve miles south of the city in Tukwila, 3.8 miles east of SeaTac International Airport, Hotel Interurban opened its doors on May 22. The 185-room hotel offers 15,000 sf of meeting space, including the 5,000-sf Rainier Room on the 19th floor, accommodating up to 500 guests theater-style, with views of Mount Rainier as a backdrop. A commuter rail station is 1 mile away, taking guests into the heart of the city, and free airport shuttles serve SeaTac.
Newly opened in 2017, the Hyatt Regency Lake Washington at Seattle’s Southport boasts an inspiring setting on the shores of Lake Washington. Attendees are treated with panoramic views of the lake and downtown Seattle, the Olympic Mountains and Mount Rainier from public and meeting spaces such as the Grand Ballroom with its floor-to-ceiling windows and outdoor terraces. The 347-room, AAA Four Diamond hotel offers a total of 60,000 sf of function spaces, including 25,000 sf of outdoor venues to bring a beautiful sense of place to events. Even the Executive Boardroom showcases “epic views” of Lake Washington and Seattle. The Water’s Table signature waterfront restaurant features Asian cuisine, an outdoor dining terrace and private dining rooms. Located in Renton, 11 miles from downtown Seattle and nine miles from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the Hyatt Regency offers guests direct access to Lake Washington and the adjacent Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park.
Not all the news comes from new-builds. With an eye to staying competitive in a fast-evolving market, last October Loews Hotel 1000 wrapped up a renovation of its 120 guest rooms, lobby and restaurant. The downtown hotel’s meeting space — just over 10,000 sf total — also received a refresh during the project.
And the 1,236-room Sheraton Seattle Hotel just completed an extensive refresh of all guest rooms and common spaces. Located directly across the street from the convention center, every inch of the hotel’s 75,000-sf function space has been renovated, and an upscale, full-serve Starbucks concept with slow-pour drinks and a beer and wine menu will open later this summer. The hotel is renowned for having the largest private art collection on display at a Seattle business, and features numerous pieces by renowned glass sculptor, Dale Chihuly.
Other downtown Seattle meeting hotels of note include the 450-room Grand Hyatt Seattle with 25,000 sf of meeting space, across the street from the WSCC; and the LEED-certified Hyatt Olive 8 Seattle, with 346 guest rooms and 12,000 sf of meeting space.
Seattle’s iconic Space Needle is also nearing completion on a $100 million renovation that will enhance the visitor experience inside while leaving the 605-foot tower’s classic architecture virtually unchanged. Views will be enhanced through the replacement of safety “cage” that wrapped the top deck with glass panels that will create seamless sight lines; glass floors will open onto a view of city streets that was unavailable previously. Meeting planners can incorporate this one-of-a-kind landmark into their event by taking one or both rooms on 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. The two-level “tophouse” Atmos also will be available for airy corporate events.
The jewel in the crown for Seattle this year will be the November opening of the 1,260-room Hyatt Regency Seattle, which debuts as the largest hotel north of San Francisco.
Located in the heart of downtown between Stewart and Howell streets and Eighth and Ninth avenues, the full-service hotel is two blocks from the existing Washington State Convention Center and adjacent to the convention center addition. The 45-story Hyatt Regency will have 103,000 sf of flexible meeting and ballroom space and is expected to enliven the surrounding pedestrian streetscape and growing convention neighborhood.
“This has been a long-awaited project, and it’s a game-changer for us,” suggests Norwalk, who adds that the location is walkable and its easy to reach the downtown core. “They’re adding lots of meeting and function space to the city.”
For Seattle, such expansion couldn’t come soon enough. The city recently celebrated its eighth consecutive year of tourism growth — overnight visitors were up 3.9 percent in 2017 — and SeaTac International Airport has grown to be the nation’s ninth busiest by passenger volume.
“The only challenge for us has been one of the sheer size of convention center,” says Norwalk, who adds that attendance is “incredibly strong” for meetings coming to Seattle. “There’s a misconception that we’re a seasonal destination, but even our first quarter is doing well — 10 months out of the year, we are busy.”
But challenges of weather and capacity are outweighed by the vibrancy and uniqueness of Seattle, according to Norwalk.
“We’ve never been a traditional cookie-cutter, chain-restaurant town,” explains Norwalk. “That tight, compact downtown core provides an ease of getting around, meaning transportation isn’t as big a priority as it is for some convention destinations.
“There’s been a renaissance in Seattle over the last couple years, and it will afford meeting planners more choices, more hotel space, and more offsite venues to work with.”
Down the road in Oregon, Portland is also experiencing major tourism growth, much of it aimed at the meeting and convention market. The city’s hotel room inventory is projected to increase 40 percent by 2020, with six hotels opening this year alone.
While this year’s crop of new hotels in Portland mostly targets business travelers and the leisure market, the new Hyatt Regency Portland at the Oregon Convention Center (OCC), opening December 2019, will be a dramatic addition to the city for meeting planners. The $244 million, 600-room hotel located next door to the OCC will feature 32,710 sf of meeting and event space, including a 12,655-sf ballroom. The hotel will be located near bus lines, a streetcar line, the MAX light rail line, and a bike-share station, providing guests and meeting attendees with quick access to downtown Portland, the central eastside and the airport.
The opening of the new Hyatt Regency will be of benefit to meeting planners such as Anne Hallinan, CMP. In January, Hallinan oversaw the Sales University 2018 event for Beaverton-based Tektronix Inc. (Tek), manufacturer of oscilloscopes, logic analyzers and video and mobile test protocol equipment. The 630 attendees were split between the 477-room DoubleTree by Hilton Portland, located in the up-and-coming Lloyd District, and the 202-room Courtyard by Marriott Portland Downtown/Convention Center.
“Our challenge is tight availability,” explains Hallinan. “The meeting is held during the first quarter, and although Portland in January isn’t high on people’s choice for vacation, convention center and hotel space is tight. We don’t have much, if any, choice in dates. We are at the mercy of the calendar and need to fit between other, larger events.”
Hallinan says the new Hyatt Regency is long overdue and very exciting.
“As a meeting planner and someone very engaged in the meetings industry, I am thrilled that Portland finally has this in their portfolio. For my client and this particular conference, this may open up additional dates for us as sometimes the hotel occupancy has dictated when we could hold this event.
“We hold our conference at the Oregon Convention Center. It is ideal because we have a fair number of breakouts, plus general sessions, ancillary meetings and group meal functions with seating for 600 — the convention center can accommodate all under one roof with minimal, if any, room turns. This meeting also requires quite a bit of electricity due to all of the equipment used in the breakouts. This is problematic for most hotels, but the convention center can handle it easily.
“I love the fact that the hotel and the convention center are industry leaders in sustainable meetings, from power conservation to recycling and composting,” says Hallinan. “Additionally, the first time I worked on this program, I was impressed by the fact that the DoubleTree had Chinese-speaking front desk agents. This was invaluable, as some our guests have limited English and it was a great welcome to them as they arrived after many hours of travel, especially if they had any issues with their hotel reservations or credit cards.” But Hallinan also cautioned that the DoubleTree is on the light rail line, and it can be heard in many of the guest rooms, “especially early in the morning when the service starts up again for the day.”
For the event, Hallinan says Tek arranged dinners throughout the city at restaurants and breweries. “It was a great opportunity for our attendees to experience Portland since their schedule is so tight while they are here. The restaurants were very flexible and provided a really nice experience for everyone.”
Like many visitors, Hallinan praised Portland’s light rail system.
“It’s a huge advantage,” explains Hallinan. “The vast majority of our attendees fly in from around the country and internationally. Being able to use MAX (Metropolitan Area Express) means we don’t have to pay transportation costs to get everyone to and from the airport. Our attendees use it to get to and from hotels and the convention center (for those who don’t want to walk the short distance).
Hallinan also recommended utilizing the meeting planning services of Travel Portland.
“They are extremely helpful not only with putting together the meeting space/sleeping room package that works for the group, but also with amenities and extra incentives. Because we utilized the convention center and (maybe) the size of our room block, Travel Portland provided us with complimentary passes for the light rail and bus system.”
For Leah Silber, CEO of Tilde Inc., an open source code developer, a quality convention center and other attributes weren’t mere motivation for holding a conference in the city.
“My company moved our headquarters to Portland about five years ago, in part because we knew we’d want to be hosting more and more of our events here,” says Silber. “The convention center really is a pleasure to work with and I recommend weighing that heavily.
“I’ve worked in cities all over the country, and it’s really hard to beat the staff and facilities at the Oregon Convention Center,” Silber continues. “The venue makes or breaks the show, and it’s amazing — and rare — to know you can really rely on the convention center staff to do their jobs perfectly just about every time. The OCC also has shockingly good retention of staff, so when we go back year after year, we’re dealing with the same people over and over again. Most of the folks we work with there have been at the convention center 10 years or more, and some have been there as long as 30 years! Being able to establish and lean on that rapport is a serious competitive advantage if you’re a repeat event organizer.
“We’ve all worked with venues that really made our lives difficult, or even seemed to sabotage our events. Being able to know you don’t need to worry about things like that is a real game-changer.”
Silber says that lodging needs have been evolving for her meetings, including her most recent, EmberConf 2018, held in March. The event drew about 1,000 attendees and the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Portland provided the principal room block.
“We’ve been moving to smaller and smaller hotel room blocks, even as our events grow, because so many people are choosing Airbnbs. They’re harder to track. …On the other hand, they don’t come with liability for us in terms of guaranteed nights — so there are ups and downs. It’s definitely changed things in a big way, and I’m interested in seeing how it plays out long term.”
During her events, Silber typically arranges a private VIP or team dinner for 30–50 people. “We invite all the folks who are instrumental in making our program stand out and take them for a dinner we hope they won’t forget. Portland helps us deliver. There are so many great restaurants to work with, and I’m constantly finding new and interesting private spaces that work for things like this. Our current favorite is Olympia Provisions, which we found after Simpatica shut down its catering business.”
But the destination, as for Hallinan, is the key selling point for Silber.
“Our attendees, many of whom fly in for the conference and stay extra time to explore the city, love Portland,” says Silber. “It’s a great mix of big city and small town charm, and one where pricing for most things is still reasonable. They go skiing, hiking, biking — the nature just can’t be beat. And there are just so many different little hot spots to explore in all four quarters. They love patronizing all the inventive and friendly local businesses Portland offers, and the restaurant scene is great, too.
“As a destination city, Portland ticks all the boxes on our minimum-viable-show checklist. It has a friendly international airport with quick and cheap mass transit to downtown, reasonable pricing and selection for hotels and Airbnbs — pretty much everything you’d want!”
Silber notes another Portland draw that hits the sweet spot — the original Voodoo Doughnut bakeshop: “Who could argue with that many options for amazing doughnuts?”C&IT