|By Karen Robinson-Jacobs, The Dallas
Morning NewsMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
September 14, 2010 --A construction worker in a lime-green lift ascends to a ballroom ceiling 22 feet high to install duct hangers at the Omni Dallas Hotel.
Across the 32,000-square-foot expanse, bright orange heavy-duty equipment shuttles metal pipes about, splashing through ponds created by recent rains.
Taking shape is the largest room in the largest inn Omni Hotels & Resorts has ever built. The work signifies Omni's growing aptitude in the convention hotel business.
The downtown Dallas hotel, to open in January 2012, will be the company's fourth completed convention center hotel. Three more are in the talking or pre-development stage.
As they offered The Dallas Morning News an exclusive look last week at the construction work in progress, Omni executives said the Irving-based company isn't trying to become known as an operator of convention hotels. But they acknowledged that gathering spaces for groups loom increasingly large in the Omni portfolio.
"As the right opportunities have come about, they happen to have been in the convention center market," said Omni spokeswoman Caryn Kboudi. "Everything that's been a new build in the past five years has been a convention center hotel. We know we've built some expertise in the convention hotel market."
Held since 1996 by Texas billionaire Robert Rowling's TRT Holdings Inc., Omni owns 32 properties in North America, including two that are partnerships. It manages, leases or franchises 11 more hotels.
Of the 43 now open, three are convention hotels -- San Diego, Atlanta and a Fort Worth hotel that opened in 2009.
While Omni is a smaller player in the convention space than brands like Hyatt and Hilton, it has more room to grow, said Bobby Bowers, a senior vice president of Smith Travel Research.
"Marriott and Hilton are far and away the biggest" chains in the field, Bowers said. "For companies like Omni, they have a huge opportunity to grow in the U.S."
The azure, wave-like addition to the Big D skyline is owned by the city of Dallas. The $500 million hotel will be managed by Omni and will be second only to Atlanta's 1,070-room Omni Hotel at CNN Center in number of rooms. (Part of that hotel was already built when Omni added a 600-room tower in 2003.)
The Dallas hotel is being built to Omni specs by 700 construction workers led by the Dallas-based developer Matthews Southwest.
Toiling from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. six days a week, on average, the team has kept the project on time and on budget, project managers said.
For now, the 23-story structure, which will have 1,001 guest rooms and 80,000 square feet of meeting space, remains a warren of steel frames, nail-studded drywall and thick ropes of cable.
Guest rooms will occupy floors 5 through 23, with the top perches reserved for three "presidential" suites. Measuring 2,800 square feet each, the suites will be bigger than most homes in Dallas.
Nearly 4,000 panes of "Pacifica" blue glass wrap the guest room floors, with each pane measuring about 9 feet tall by nearly 5 feet wide.
On the roof -- which will not be open to the public -- workers pound thick bolts into a steel frame, the sound echoing across the concrete like gunshots. The frame, stretching 25 feet high, will hold lighted signage of the Omni name and logo.
On the fourth floor are the skeletal beginnings of the spa, fitness center and 1,800-square-foot pool, offering views of the bulbous Reunion Tower and the downtown skyline.
Toward the southern end of the building, near what's now called the Grand Ballroom, will be a sky bridge connecting the Omni to the Dallas Convention Center.
The Convention Center holds a carpeted corridor and two fully furnished model guest rooms designed to give meeting planners a preview of the finished product.
Specifics on colors (the models sport earth tones) and wood finishes are still being worked out, as is the selection of "thousands" of pieces of Dallas-inspired artwork, Kboudi said. But plans already are set for a technology package designed to generate buzz.
The power to the room lights flows from an "energy management system" controlled by the room key. Remove the key from the energy management slot, and the room goes dark.
The floor is wired with sensors that trigger a night light to make midnight potty trips safer. The headboards have built-in pop-up reading lamps.
In perhaps the coolest bathroom innovation since oversized rolls of tissue, a television is embedded in the bathroom mirror. With the TV off, the mirror looks standard.
The first group to test the hotel's amenities will be the American Library Association, to meet here Jan. 18, 2012, said Ed Netzhammer, general manager of the Omni Dallas Hotel and the brand's regional vice president of operations.
The group will use 900 rooms and "every bit of the meeting space," he said.
About 70 percent of the hotel's business will be group sales, which is on par for large downtown convention hotels, Netzhammer said.
"It is very good for our brand to have these big convention center hotels," he said. "It does allow us to share more business [between properties] because the same groups rotate throughout the country."
Last month, Omni and Nashville's metropolitan government announced a "pre-development agreement" to build an 800-room hotel adjacent to the under-construction Music City Convention Center. The downtown convention center and hotel are to open in 2013.
Omni also is in talks with Pittsburgh about a convention center hotel and is one of several brands in preliminary discussions with Boston, Kboudi said.
But the company is not putting all of its eggs in the convention swag bag.
Omni -- which ranked highest among 15 upscale hotels in J.D. Power and Associates' 2010 guest satisfaction study -- recently bought the Amelia Island Plantation resort near Jacksonville, Fla.
The company also owns more than 80 acres of beachfront land for a resort near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, on the Bay of Banderas.
And Omni plans to launch a luxury boutique brand, Mokara, with the conversion of San Antonio's Watermark Hotel & Spa this month.
"Right now, growth is happening in so many different ways," Netzhammer said. "I think we'll have great growth in the next two [or] three years."
BY THE NUMBERS
60,000: Cubic yards of concrete, totaling 243 million pounds. That's enough to build a 4-foot-wide sidewalk more than 230 miles long, about the distance from South Dallas to Houston.
9 million: Pounds of reinforcing steel
250,000: Square feet of exterior glass "skin" on the hotel. That's almost six acres' worth.
65,000: Square yards of carpet, enough to cover more than 10 football fields
13,500: Gallons of paint
100,000: Square yards of wall covering
SOURCE: Omni Hotels & Resorts
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