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Detroit Cites Affordability as it Seeks to Fill 5,000
 New Hotel Rooms with Conventioneers

By Todd Spangler, Detroit Free PressMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Oct. 14, 2009--WASHINGTON -- The lunch of squash soup and dill-crusted Arctic char over, MotorCity Casino's Christine Barrett is setting the hook: She's got two women from the 22,000-member United Union of Roofers nibbling, and she'd like to net their 2013 convention for Detroit.

Before you can say "penny slots," Barrett has talked up MotorCity's new building, its hotel and restaurants, even owner Marian Ilitch's (and husband Mike's) standing in metro Detroit. Brochures are exchanged and offers extended for the women to come see for themselves.

This week in Washington, Detroit's convention, casino and hotel emissaries are doing the hard sell, breaking bread, teeing up and cruising the Potomac River with many of the majordomos on the professional meeting circuit.

They're looking for business, touting 5,000 new hotel rooms, three new casinos and a soon-to-be renovated and expanded Cobo Center. They have a not-so-secret weapon working in their favor as well: a lousy economy.

Affordability, for a lot of meeting planners, has become a much bigger ingredient in a convention recipe, and Detroit's got it.

According to STR, which compiles and analyzes hotel trends, the region's average daily room rate in August of $77.35 was among the most affordable in the nation's top 25 markets -- less than Chicago ($107.56), New Orleans ($85.80), St. Louis ($81.82) and many others.

StarCite Inc., which provides technology to meeting and event planners and providers, says Detroit's visitor and tourism industry has seen 18% more requests for meetings with event planners in the first six months of this year compared with 2008, while other cities have seen double-digit declines.

StarCite credits lower room rates as a key reason, as well as new properties and attractions.

Detroit has already signed the American Federation of Teachers convention for 2012. Officials are making deals with the American Postal Workers Union, the General Assembly of God and the Amvets veterans group.

Andrea Chapman, an official with the postal workers, says her union's 2010 gathering in Detroit was most likely motivated by affordability.

Far from being worried about the city's reputation for joblessness or crime, Chapman said at the Tuesday luncheon at the Washington Court Hotel that she's been to Detroit and "thought it was nice," touring Greektown, enjoying shops in the Renaissance Center and noting how much members like to visit Windsor.

"People like to say they've been to Canada even if it's just taking the bus across the border," she said.

Among a handful of meeting planners for labor unions who heard Detroit's pitch, many had already committed to the city, though not all.

Jamie Zimolong is secretary to the president of the roofers' union, and after hearing and seeing some of the pitch Tuesday, she said her biggest concerns are ease of reaching the city, availability of all-inclusive accommodations and sights to entertain union members -- and their spouses.

For the last quarter-century, she noted, they've held conventions in Las Vegas.

Does Detroit have a chance?

"I wouldn't cross it off the list," she said.

Contact TODD SPANGLER at 202-906-8203 or at tspangler@freepress.com.

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Copyright (c) 2009, Detroit Free Press

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