|By Tom Howard, Billings Gazette,
Mont.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jun. 18, 2008 --Two traditional competitors in the hospitality industry have joined forces to promote downtown as a destination for major conventions.
The new Downtown Conference Corridor is a project of the Crowne Plaza Hotel and the Best Western Clocktower Inn.
Combined, the two long-time downtown hotels can offer around 400 rooms and more than 16,000 square feet of conference space within walking distance of the Alberta Bair Theater, the Yellowstone Art Museum, Venture Theatre and the Montana State University Billings Conference Center, the Billings Petroleum Club and other venues.
Steve Wahrlich, the owner of the Best Western Clocktower Inn, said he and Crowne Plaza manager Chris Johnson have discussed the marketing alliance for several months. Soon they were looking at ways their properties would complement each other.
"Years ago the Sheraton (the hotel now known as the Crowne Plaza) looked at the Ponderosa (now the Clocktower) as just a motel. And the Ponderosa looked at the Sheraton as a big hotel that didn't service its guests," Wahrlich said Tuesday.
"But I have always felt that if the two properties came together, we could merchandize ourselves as a 400-room convention center."
Both hotels have meeting rooms. But a convention that needs to seat 1,000 people might be able to rent the Alberta Bair Theater. Likewise, the Yellowstone Art Museum could be booked to handle a reception for several hundred convention attendees, Wahrlich said.
The historic Northern Hotel has been closed for more than a year, but Wahrlich said he would welcome the Northern into the fold if it reopens.
Wahrlich said the Downtown Conference Corridor was created as a way to compete for conventions with larger West End motels. But it's also designed as another way to promote downtown Billings, he said.
"It's another way to make downtown more viable," Wahrlich said.
So far the Crowne Plaza and the Clocktower Inn have shared the cost of developing promotional materials for the Downtown Conference Corridor, Wahrlich said.
Tourism and downtown advocates welcome the idea.
Joan Kronebusch, director of the Billings Chamber of Commerce Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the corridor gives her another tool to use when trying to bring visitors to Billings.
Many groups prefer a downtown location for conventions, she said.
Lisa Harmon, the executive director of the Downtown Billings Alliance, said downtown advocates have often discussed strategies to bring in more convention business. The idea has received more attention since MSU Billings has become a bigger downtown presence, she said.
"But Steve and Chris have taken it up a notch by cross-marketing their properties and trying to bring the historic downtown venues into it," Harmon said.
Because the effort is just being launched, Wahrlich considers it a long-term effort. "Groups don't book tomorrow morning, so we probably won't see a lot of events for a year or so, but we may pick up one or two at a moment's notice," he said.
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