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Detroit's Downtown Hotel Market in Best Shape Ever

By Mary Francis Masson, Detroit Free PressMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

January 13, 2008 - The MSN Autos crew couldn't be happier with their stay at the Westin Book Cadillac hotel during this week's auto show in Detroit.

It was nothing like their memorable experience seven years ago at the old Hotel Pontchartrain -- which was so bad, they documented it in a video heavy with sarcasm.

"It was awful. And it colored my vision of Detroit for many years to come," said Robert J. Pennington, a Seattle-based photographer working for MSN Autos.

Journalists at this year's auto show have at least two new hotel options downtown: the Book Cadillac and the Doubletree Guest Suites Fort Shelby. For many, it's nice to have new, world-class options available in Detroit, where about 2,000 new rooms have opened in the last two years.

"It's awesome," Pennington said of the Book Cadillac, comparing it with hotels in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Los Angeles.

He was surprised that Westin had a new hotel in Detroit. "The perception is that it is not a growth city," Pennington said.

Perry L. Stern, editor at MSN Autos, still has the video on his computer and it still got his crew chuckling Monday afternoon. That stay at the old Pontchartrain -- popular with journalists because it is located right next to Cobo -- with no hot water and bad service won't be easily forgotten. But Stern said he was "blown away" by the Westin, and plans to rebook there next year.

At the Westin, rooms were sold out Saturday and Sunday, and occupancy was in the mid-90% range Friday and Monday, said Scott Stinebaugh, director of sales and marketing for the Westin Book Cadillac.

Stinebaugh said hotel officials were pleased but admitted they hoped for a four-day sellout.

Reduced attendance from journalists at the North American International Auto Show deflated that performance.

Stinebaugh said that quality is up all over downtown.

Even the old Pontchartrain is a completely different place. It's now called the Detroit Riverside Hotel and underwent a $35-million overhaul in 2007.

"The downtown hotel market is in the best shape it's ever been," Stinebaugh said.

"I think it's at a whole new level, ushered in with the gaming industry," said Juliette Okotie-Eboh, senior vice president of community affairs at MGM Grand. "We had a lot of rooms that were older, patch-up jobs ... but now with the Westin, and the Fort Shelby ... we're ushering in a new era of amenities."

MGM Grand also reported occupancy around 90% from Friday to Monday, consistent with last year's numbers.

The Doubletree Guest Suites Fort Shelby sold out Saturday, Sunday and Monday -- although 19 of its 203 rooms weren't ready, said Bill Aprill, director of sales and marketing.

Christoph Horn, director of global communications for Mercedes-Benz, said the car company hosted a group of journalists at the Book Cadillac. Horn, a veteran attendee of Detroit auto shows, also stayed there.

"This is a different league ... There have been some good places in Detroit, but not five-star quality," Horn said, adding this year's hotel stay is the best he's ever had in Detroit "by a big margin."

Chuck Skelton, an Ann Arbor-based hotel consultant with the firm Hospitality Advisors, said this weekend is showtime for the new hotels downtown.

Downtown hotel occupancy hovered around 60% on average in mid-2008, Skelton said.

"But if they're not busting at the seams this weekend, they're not going to be busting at the seams at all this season," he said.

Contact MARY FRANCIS MASSON at 313-222-6159 or mmasson@freepress.com.

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Copyright (c) 2009, Detroit Free Press

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