|By Elliot Njus, The Oregonian, Portland,
Ore.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Sept. 15, 2012--On Wednesday, development officials in Portland were weighing a proposal for a hotel at the Oregon Convention Center. Three hundred miles away in Spokane, a hotelier was announcing plans for a 700-room hotel at that city's convention center.
In San Diego and San Francisco, boosters have proposed expanding existing convention centers, and one is already under way in San Jose. Officials in Seattle would like to see their city's convention center enlarged too, but haven't found funding. And in Austin, Texas, private developers are building 2,000 hotel rooms near that city's convention center.
Welcome to the convention center hotel arms race. With a green light last week from the Portland Development Commission and the Metro regional government, officials have officially opened negotiations with a team for a Portland Hyatt-branded "headquarters hotel" to lure more national conventions and trade shows to the Oregon Convention Center.
A number of competing venues across the country are expanding or upgrading facilities, as well. That means either doubling down on a convention center in an effort to keep it from losing visitors or else walking away from the allure of out-of-state dollars for hotels, restaurants and shops.
It's not a new discussion. In outgoing Metro attorney Dan Cooper's office hangs a photo of the Oregon Convention Center's 1990 opening night. In the lower-right corner of the frame, on one of the parcels today eyed for a Hyatt hotel, a sign notes the future site of a convention center headquarters hotel.
Elected officials have long sought to find a way to build that hotel, figuring the lack of one was a big factor keeping Portland off the national convention map.
And Metro has some evidence to back it up. Last year, it says, more than 30 groups representing 49,000 conventioneers passed over the city because of concerns over lodging, taking their $35 million in spending money elsewhere.
However, one of the largest groups, the American Association of Physicists in Medicine, told The Oregonian that a headquarters hotel might not have sealed the deal, anyway. They took their 2017 annual meeting to Denver instead.
"If we were in Portland and we needed that many hotel rooms, we would have needed our folks to take public transportation up to a mile away," said Karen MacFarland, the organization's meetings and programs manager. "Maybe that wouldn't be a big deal for some associations, but in Denver, you can just walk maybe two blocks."
"I guess Portland would have to have 2,500 rooms within walking distance in order to compete with some of the other cities that we considered," she said.
The American Anthropological Association, too, chose to take its 5,000 annual meeting attendees to Denver for the organization's 2015 conference. That group's meetings director, Jason Watkins, said it might consider Portland again if more of its attendees didn't have to cross the Willamette River from downtown hotels. "We just thought it would be too disjointed," he said.
He said a 500-room block at a headquarters hotel "changes a lot."
"Portland is an attractive place to go. There's a lot of activity in the city. It's a great community," he said. "I imagine if you move forward with the hotel, we could consider going for a future meeting."
Conference and trade show attendance at the convention center, though volatile, has largely trended down since peaking in 1999. Measured in attendee days, convention attendance has fallen from 896,927 that year to 381,851 in 2011. In part, that reflects conventions planned in the depths of the recession.
In 2008, a Metro analysis concluded a new convention center hotel could bring eight to 10 additional national conventions to town, an estimated economic impact of $55 million a year.
"Portland has had more recognition since then," said Teri Dresler, Metro's general manager for visitor venues. "I think there's a pent-up desire out there among meeting planners."
But Heywood Sanders, an economist at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a convention center skeptic, argued in a 2005 Brookings Institution paper that the convention industry is in decline everywhere. Meanwhile, he says, more cities are competing for the dollars remaining.
"There has been a steady stream of cities over the last decade and a half that have been told by consultants or by one or another elected official that the one way to get more convention center business is to get a headquarters hotel next door," Sanders said. "I don't think that's going to happen. At least not the way you think."
He said there might be a temporary bump in attendance but that the effect would be dulled over time as competition grows.
"The reality is, if it doesn't boost the convention center's business, you're not getting a return on investment," he said. "You're simply rearranging the demand in Portland."
Metro says a convention center hotel is intended to create enough spillover demand for rooms that other hotels would benefit too. Its economic study is in the works and will be finished before negotiations with the hotel developers wrap up.
"If our studies show we can't increase overall hotel sales across the city, if we can't fulfill that purpose, we shouldn't be in the game," Cooper said.
--Elliot Njus Follow @ORFrontPorch
(c)2012 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)
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