|By Sara K. Clarke, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
February 13, 2009 - Next door to the giant Orange County Convention Center on International Drive, workers are pouring a new floor every six days for the The Peabody Orlando hotel's 34-story addition.
Nearby, backhoes are moving dirt around inside a steel structure that will become the hotel's new, 55,000-square-foot ballroom. And a 2,100-car parking garage is on track to open by July.
It's all part of a $450 million expansion and renovation more than a decade in the making. The project, first floated in 1998, has had two false starts: The first attempt was disrupted by the travel slump following the 2001 terrorist attacks, when loans dried up; the second was derailed in 2004 by a global building boom, which drove construction prices through the roof.
Now the project is finally under construction and well under way, and this time -- in the middle of the worst recession in decades -- hotel officials say the timing is actually right.
"It's always good to renovate and expand your hotel when the economy's down," said Alan Villaverde, the hotel's executive vice president and general manager. Vendors eager for work are offering better deals than they did just two years ago, he said. The construction will occupy more than 900 people at its peak, he said, and the expanded hotel's work force is expected to double, from 650 to 1,200 or more employees.
"This is a family-owned business," Villaverde said. "It's a big deal."
The Peabody's expansion is in keeping with the local trend of building ever-bigger convention hotels to bolster the area's ranking as the No. 2 convention destination in the country.
The Peabody Orlando, owned by Memphis, Tenn.-based Belz Enterprises, will have 1,641 guest rooms when the expansion is complete. It will be the largest four-star hotel in North America, excluding casino properties, Villaverde said. And it will have 210,000 square feet of meeting space -- more than the adjacent county convention center had when it first opened in 1983.
Back then, the Belz family was one of only a few hotel operators willing to buy into the idea of Orlando as a major convention destination. Bigger chains passed on the opportunity to build a hotel across the street from the fledgling Orange County Convention Center, opening the door for Belz and other independent hoteliers -- like Harris Rosen, who now owns two hotels next to the county center and a large resort nearby.
"It was really a gamble," Villaverde said of the Peabody Orlando. "Never in their wildest imagination did they [convention center officials] think they'd have homebuilders, or PGA, or some of the other major conventions that we have."
The Peabody's expansion includes a renovation of the original hotel, something Villaverde said will keep people from viewing the original structure as old. It should all be ready for a grand opening on Nov. 1, 2010.
"There's a phenomenon in the industry that everyone wants to stay in the new property," he said. "They will not know any difference between the old property and the new property."
Sara K. Clarke can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5664.
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