|By Kirsten Valle, The Charlotte Observer,
N.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Apr. 29, 2010--A new ballroom at the Charlotte Convention Center is the latest tool to attract conventions -- and the big spending that comes with them -- and is already helping boost the travel business after a rough few years, tourism officials said this week.
The $43 million, 40,000-square-foot Crown Ballroom is in the NASCAR Hall of Fame and connected to the convention center via an overstreet walkway. It hosts its first event, the Center City Vision Awards, tonight.
Travel to the Charlotte area began to slow two years ago, as the economy pinched corporate budgets and grounded business travelers. By fall 2009, hotel occupancy had fallen 17 percent over the previous year, steeper than the 10 percent national drop, data from the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority show.
The CRVA refocused its efforts as a result, hoping to rely less on business travel and more on conventions and trade shows, amateur sports and leisure travel.
During the first quarter of this year, groups began to show more interest in Charlotte and book events further out, likely to take advantage of recession-related deals, convention booking manager Leslie Kluttz said.
In February, hotel occupancy was about 60 percent, up 9percent over last year, though average daily rates were down 5 percent, a CRVA report this month found.
Among the continuing challenges: Conventions can find lower rates in larger cities, too, meaning some groups are passing on Charlotte for places such as San Francisco, said Ted Lewis, the convention center's general manager.
There are 23 definite trade show and convention bookings for the 2010 fiscal year, down slightly from 2009 and lower than the target of 30.
But tourism officials are encouraged by big events on the horizon, such as the National Rifle Association's mid-May convention, set to take place, in part, in the new ballroom and expected to draw more than 60,000 people.
Officials say the new ballroom, 5,000 square feet bigger than the existing one -- with even more floor space, thanks to a built-in stage -- will help book groups that otherwise would have gone elsewhere.
They say the space, coupled with the NASCAR Hall of Fame, new museums and other attractions, will bring in money for hotels and restaurants, resulting in bigger tax collections and the word of mouth to fuel future trips.
"This is a significant step up for us," Lewis said.
Kirsten Valle: 704-358-5248
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