|By Andrea L. Stape, The Providence
Journal, R.I.McClatchy-Tribune Business News
Nov. 12, 2006 --MASHANTUCKET, Conn. -- Looking out from Foxwoods' ninth floor pool deck, the casino's $700-million expansion project looks like a small city.
As steel and concrete rise out of the Connecticut forest, Bruce MacDonald, spokesman for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, rattles off the details: a 30-floor hotel tower, a 50,000-square-foot casino, a 4,000-seat performing arts center and 115,000 square feet of additional convention and meeting space.
This is much more than just a casino expansion. When finished, the Indian-owned Foxwoods Resort and Casino will have 170,000 square feet of meeting and convention space.
The plan is to "attack the business and convention center market," says MacDonald.
Carrying the MGM Mirage brand name, the addition is expected to open in 2008, and Foxwoods plans to start running shuttle service from Rhode Island's T.F. Green Airport for convention groups.
"We expect the brand will draw people," says MacDonald.
About 45 minutes north, a much smaller construction project is under way -- the $62-million renovation of Providence's Dunkin' Donuts Center.
Last year, Rhode Island took on an additional $92.5 million in public debt to buy the Dunk from the City of Providence, to overhaul the 13,000-seat arena and to connect it to the Rhode Island Convention Center to create one 220,000-square-foot complex to market to associations and convention planners nationally.
As Rhode Island targets larger conventions, Foxwoods' expansion is "legitimate competition" for the convention center, says James McCarvill, executive director of the Rhode Island Convention Center Authority.
"[Foxwoods] is a significant development and it will have significant space," he admits.
But while Rhode Island is willing to acknowledge that there has been an increase in regional competition in recent years -- from Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun and the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford, Conn. -- McCarvill says Rhode Island isn't ceding the fight.
In addition to the renovation of the Dunk, the authority's board is considering voting to approve an $825,000 project to add 3,500 square feet of luxury meeting rooms on the first floor of the convention center and is aggressively marketing the 474 new hotel rooms set to open in downtown Providence next year.
"You have to add a ride every season," said McCarvill, referring to the tactics amusement parks use to stay competitive. "You have to constantly look at ways to improve the product. It would be an improvement; it would be another enhancement -- another reason to come here rather than somewhere else."
Foxwoods says it's not competing with Rhode Island. Rather, the world's largest casino is targeting a different audience than the urban convention centers such as Providence, said Joan Esneault, executive director of resort sales for Foxwoods.
The casino, which will triple its convention and meeting space with the addition, is working to attract large national groups that want everything in one spot. Not only will Foxwoods be able to offer a 50,000-square-foot ballroom and 30,000 square feet of breakout space for lectures and seminars, it also has gaming, a spa, hotel rooms, restaurants and entertainment all connected in one complex, said Esneault. Not to mention two golf courses across the street.
"It's really all under one roof, a nice resort destination," says Esneault. Urban locations can't offer attendees a large block of rooms in one hotel, she says.
"And these convention groups are looking for something unique outside of the city," she adds.
While the casino is successful at attracting customers on the weekends, attendance typically slows midweek. . Foxwoods is specifically focused on improving its midweek attendance by offering package deals to corporations planning meetings and national associations, according to Sandra Rios, a spokeswoman for the Foxwoods casino.
"A big purpose for partnering with the MGM Grand is that they are very strong in the business and convention" market, said Rios. "What we're doing is growing the market -- not competing."
Already Foxwoods is marketing the convention and meeting space to national groups, even though the expansion won't be finished until 2008. Targeting associations, which book events out a few years, the casino has had several commit already, says Esneault.
Mohegan Sun, Foxwoods' neighbor, has taken a similar approach. Mohegan, which emphasizes that it has 100,000 square feet of meeting space, a 10,000-seat arena and 1,200 hotel rooms in one complex , also doesn't view urban locations -- such as Providence -- as competition, says Christopher Perry, vice president of hotel sales and marketing at Mohegan Sun.
"I think when you go Providence and Hartford …[there's] no true big hotels in those cities," says Perry.
Mohegan, too, is working to fill hotel rooms and meeting space at the casino from Sunday through Tuesday, when it's not teeming with customers interested in spending a long weekend at the casino complex, says Perry. The casino held about 500 events last year, but they were mostly corporate meetings and events, he says. Now, it is working to promote itself nationally as a destination for associations' annual meetings and conventions.
"We're still very much regional in terms of the business we attract," mostly from Philadelphia to Massachusetts, says Perry. "But we're trying to attract business beyond those boundaries."
While they say Providence isn't on the radar screen, Mohegan and Foxwoods, about a 20-minute drive from one another, are focused on a ferocious competition with each other. Mohegan opened a massive expansion to its casino -- including a hotel and the arena -- in 2002. Now, Foxwoods is in the midst of its $700-million expansion. And this week, Mohegan Sun is promoting an event on Thursday where it will reveal the casino's expansion plans.
Additional "convention and meeting space is being discussed -- it's part of the discussion," says Perry.
To the Greater Hartford Convention & Visitors Bureau, the competition between the two is a bonus, not a threat to the roughly 200,000-square-foot convention center. Slightly more than a year old, the center has a shuttle to the casinos and sometimes will host auxiliary events for conventions using the casinos, says Katie Blint, spokeswoman for the convention center.
Hartford sees the casinos as a draw for its convention center, says H. Scott Phelps, president of the Greater Hartford Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"For us they've both been positive for us -- the marketing arms of both casinos have extensive reach," said Phelps, promoting the entire state as a tourist destination nationally.
The Rhode Island Convention Center, for its part, views everyone as competition as it looks to aggressively tackle national conventions and large associations.
It's a "national game," as far as the Greater Providence & Warwick Convention and Visitors' Bureau is concerned, says Neil Schriever, vice president of sales for the CVB. The convention center authority hires the bureau to market the convention center and sell the space.
"Competition is not just Foxwoods and Hartford and Boston, there are over 400 convention facilities in North America," says Schriever. "We have some groups that are looking Providence to Reno."
It's all part of the convention center and the visitors bureau's long-term plan for growing the convention center's business base and Providence's reputation.
The convention center was built 13 years ago, using $354 million in state money, to revitalize downtown. With additional development, such as the Providence Place mall and other renovations, it's hard to attribute revival solely to the convention center. But the center has become a destination for regional and local events, hosting something at least 300 days a year.
The past five years, however, have been a roller-coaster ride for the meetings and convention business. The end of the dot-com boom meant the death of some national technology conventions and economic uncertainty after 9/11 caused groups to cut their budgets and rethink traveling across the country for conferences, according to an analysis of the convention center market by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Convention and meetings bookings dropped dramatically.
Simultaneously, there was an increase in the construction of convention centers and meeting space nationally, as states and municipalities added facilities in an attempt to attract conventioneers and their money. According to a study by the Brookings Institution last year, public spending on convention centers had risen to $2.4 billion year.
As the market dropped and competition increased, the Rhode Island Convention Center worked to keep improving the center's looks and building the city's reputation nationally. The Rhode Island Convention Center saw a downturn in business, with associations nervous about booking events five or six years in advance, but it didn't stop trying to court conventions from around the country and pushing local hoteliers to add rooms so the city could accommodate more people.
Now, the convention center industry nationally is seeing a rebound. Convention center and trade show events increased 16 percent between 2004 and 2005, and between 2005 and 2006 national convention center events were up 2 percent, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. Medium-sized convention centers, with 100,000 to 500,000, square feet, added 6 percent more business between 2005 and 2006.
And Providence, marketing an improved Dunk and new hotel rooms The Westin Providence and the Providence Renaissance plan to bring on line next year, is gaining momentum. The board of directors is also considering using $825,000 from the center's renewal and replacement fund to add more meeting space in the center's lobby.
The number of overall events is down, but annual revenue is up at the center. And while planners have been reluctant to commit to next fall, in case the hotel rooms are running behind schedule, Schriever is seeing significant interest from groups for the following years.
"We are finally now seeing increased activity for future business," he said.
The CVB has already booked most of fall 2008 with large conventions, said Schriever, due in part to the new hotel rooms. And Irish step dancers are bringing their regional competition to the convention center in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and their national competition to the city in 2013.
"The hospitality and convention industry has seen a shift back to the glory years of 1999 and 2000," he said, with customers booking events years ahead of time and more frequently.
But even with the increase in business overall, and the different ways other properties are seeking to position their offerings, Rhode Island continues to view all convention space as possible competition.
Hartford, since it's new, can offer lower rates than Providence, said Schriever, which is always a concern. And he anticipates seeing Foxwoods showing up more frequently as a competing bidder for events.
It's not time to take a break and gloat about having a 13-year track record of attracting events to the city, he said.
"It's a very competitive business," agreed McCarvill, executive director of the convention center. "We'll look forward to the competition."
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Copyright (c) 2006, The Providence Journal, R.I.
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