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Florida's Orange County Convention Center puts Faith in New
1,400-room Hilton Orlando as Catalyst for Growth

By Sara K. Clarke, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Sep. 12, 2009--As the Hilton Orlando celebrates its grand opening this weekend on International Drive, its next-door neighbor is cheering as well.

Travel slump aside, the Orange County Convention Center is glad to see the 1,400-room hotel accepting guests finally because it means a decade-old strategic plan to add convention-class rooms close to the county-run center is finally starting to come together.

Never mind that the hotel has more than 175,000 square feet of its own meeting space, so many of the groups that book rooms there may never see the inside of the 1.2 million-square-foot convention center. The giant Hilton is providing something far more important than trade show or conference bookings: hotel rooms within walking distance of the convention's center's giant North-South Building.

"It's priceless," said Tom Ackert, director of the 2.1 million-square-foot Orange County Convention Center. "It allows us to now sell the south concourse in a much more effective manner."

As the Hilton Orlando preps for a ribbon cutting this afternoon, General Manager Doug Gehret is aware of where his resort fits into Orlando's nationally ranked convention trade.

"When you look at International Drive, the comment you hear from a lot of planners is, 'We're limited on the number of full-service properties right around the convention center,'" Gehret said. "We help fill that void."

If things go well -- and with bookings already strong, Gehret expects they will -- the Hilton Orlando could even be a catalyst for growth in the area.

"I think there will be eyes on our hotel because we're the new build, we're connected to the center, we've got a global brand," he said. "As we show how successful we can be ... there will be additional interest to grow."

Adjacent growth is what the nation's second-largest convention center has been looking for since the county roughly doubled the center's size. A decade ago, when planning for that expansion got under way, the goal was to add two more hotels nearby and expand the Peabody Orlando, another neighbor.

But the hotel projects stalled, and the Peabody only recently began its expansion, which is expected to open next year. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and the ensuing travel slump were the first impediment. Then came the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the SARS virus scare and the recession.

The government-funded expansion of the convention center opened in 2003, but with none of the additional hotel rooms and restaurants within walking distance as originally envisioned. Some of the extra-large business groups and trade shows using the expanded center complained about the shortage of rooms and dining options; a couple even threatened not to return if the situation didn't improve.

The Hilton Orlando is viewed as a big step in that improvement.

The hotel has a 450-foot-long covered walkway leading directly to the convention center. It has a high-end steakhouse, a sports bar and a poolside bistro. Its rooms sparkle with granite countertops, leather headboards and flat-screen televisions.

This weekend the hotel, which started accepting guests earlier this month, is welcoming everyone from local government officials to top meeting planners. A Grand Opening Showcase tonight includes tours of the property topped off by dinner and fireworks.

No amount of pyrotechnics can hide the fact that the Hilton is opening amid what is "clearly a challenging environment," Gehret acknowledged. September is typically the slowest month of the year for Orlando's convention hotels even in good times, and 2009 has already weighed in with disappointing spring and summer seasons. A whole lot has changed in the economy, nationally and locally, since Hilton broke ground on I-Drive in mid-2007.

But being the "new kid on the block" is an advantage in such a climate, Gehret said, and Hilton's presence in the heart of the I-Drive tourism corridor could be good news for other hoteliers, too. After all, the hotel's sales team has spent the past two years extolling Orlando's virtues to businesses far and wide.

"We're here to help enhance Orlando's [hospitality] industry, not take from it," Gehret said.

Sara K. Clarke can be reached at skclarke@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5664.

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To see more of The Orlando Sentinel or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.OrlandoSentinel.com.

Copyright (c) 2009, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.

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