N.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Oct. 7, 2009--This much is certain: Without a full-service hotel, the Wilmington convention center will not be as successful as city officials had hoped, at least not right away. That doesn't mean it must fail.
And even those who opposed its construction should hope that it does not fail. It is in everyone's best interest, supporters and opponents alike, to make the most of what is a far-from-ideal situation.
The convention center is under construction and will be completed well before any adjacent hotel can be built.
Marketing will be tough, particularly with the falloff in tourism overall due to the economic downturn. Convention organizers prefer the convenience of an on-site hotel, with restaurant, bar and other amenities. Wilmington will be unlikely to attract large groups looking for the total package. But the facility is on the riverfront, and there will be plenty of parking.
Nearby hotels could accommodate convention goers -- especially if convenient transportation can be arranged.
The management firm and the Cape Fear Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau must turn their attention to attracting conferences and "drive-in" conventions, as well as other functions that could keep the hotel-challenged convention center in business. That may include trade shows and weddings and community events.
The city council, meanwhile, must decide -- quickly -- how to proceed from here. Although the economy isn't ripe for new ventures, several hotel companies have expressed interest. Now is the time to solicit more formal proposals, and to keep pounding the pavement for offers if none come in immediately.
Only a complete pessimist would believe the current economic hardships are permanent. Wilmington will recover, and it will continue to be an appealing destination. Until then, however, city officials and marketers must deal with the reality that the convention center won't be an overnight sensation.
Some opponents may gleefully chime in with the "I told you so" refrain. That may give them some satisfaction, but it isn't helpful for the city or its taxpayers.
The situation is what it is, and it calls for some creative measures. Some possibilities already have been mentioned, including discounted prices, deals with nearby hotels and shuttle service. While the lack of a hotel presents a challenge, an attractive price and a lovely setting may sway some budget-conscious organizations. A nice discount to local groups also may help keep occupancy high.
City council members have their work cut out. They were too lenient with a hotel development group that couldn't seem to pull together financing. Six deadlines came and went before the council canceled the contract. Now they're playing catch-up.
But the council and city officials can't afford to sit back and wait for a nibble. It's time to be more aggressive. Wilmington will have a convention center, and it must have a hotel.
In the meantime, the city and its events manager have the unenviable task of marketing a partial package. Best of luck -- and that is meant with the utmost sincerity.
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Copyright (c) 2009, Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.
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