News for the Hospitality Executive
|By Ralph Bivins, Houston Chronicle
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Nov. 30, 2003 - Houston doesn't have the neon-powered casino strip of Las Vegas or the nightclub district of the French Quarter in old New Orleans.
So what will it take to make Houston sexy enough to become a player in the convention business?
The planners of the city's new Hilton Americas-Houston are hoping a convention hotel that is a notch above the rest should help draw conventioneers.
The Hilton itself -- a $285 million conglomeration of stone, steel and concrete -- will be an attraction for convention planners, the hotel developers say.
"Finally, Houston is going to be on the map for conventions," said hotel consultant John Keeling of PKF Consulting.
The developers hope the dark granite, rich marble and original artworks set Houston's new Hilton apart from the typical beige blandness of most convention hotels.
Columns wrapped in Italian red marble grace the lobby of the 1,200-room hotel, which will be counted as Houston's largest hostelry when it opens Thursday. Dec. 4.
Mahogany from Honduras, flooring from China, granite from Africa, and hand-blown glass light fixtures from Venice, Italy, have all been designed to give the biggest hotel in town the unique appeal of smaller, boutique hotels.
"It's not really a convention hotel. It's more like a 1,200-room boutique hotel," said David Villarrubia, general manager of the hotel.
But this business, which is owned by the city, is built to draw more and bigger conventions.
It is linked by a covered skybridge to the city's George R. Brown Convention Center, which recently doubled in size to about 2 million square feet, in hopes of drawing bigger meetings.
The Hilton was needed, backers of the project said, to raise Houston into a higher bracket in the convention industry. A large convention hotel, tied to the expanded convention center, means Houston can now offer the space and rooms needed for bigger meetings.
Until a couple of years ago, downtown Houston had fewer than 3,000 hotel rooms. But with recent additions, such as the Sam Houston, Magnolia, Residence Inn and Courtyard by Marriott, the supply of downtown rooms has been surging.
With the opening of the three hotels in the next few weeks -- the Hilton, the Hotel Icon and the Inn at the Ballpark -- Houston will have about 5,000 rooms operating in its downtown.
When former Mayor Bob Lanier was working with developers to create a plan for the Hilton Americas-Houston, he knew it wasn't just about the number of rooms.
Mayor Lee Brown appointed Lanier in 2000 to head up the city-owned corporation that developed the hotel. Lanier, a developer by trade, asked an executive from the Hines development firm how to make the Hilton ahead of the pack of humdrum hostelries.
"I said, 'How many extra dollars will it take to make it outstanding?' He said, 'It will take an extra $10 to $15 million.' " And the city elected to spend the extra money to get an upgraded hotel, Lanier said.
So with Lanier's blessing, Charles Elder, vice president of Hines, toured and surveyed the nation's leading convention hotels -- including a Sheraton in Chicago, and Marriott hotels in San Francisco and Philadelphia -- as well as a lot of professionals in the field.
Hines came up with a lot of improvements and minor tweaking that could be done for the Hilton. They added more escalators and elevators to make it easier to get around. And they did the little things, like installing more convenient rigging hooks in the ballroom ceilings to make it easier to set up loudspeakers or curtains.
Elder said these nuts-and-bolts things may not be noticed by conventioneers, but they will weigh favorably with meeting planners who decide where to hold conventions.
And their attention to detail went beyond making an impression in the flashy public spaces.
The Hilton's guest rooms will have some comforts that aren't found in a lot of convention hotels around the country, Elder said.
"A lot of convention hotels around the country have sort of 'go-to-hell' rooms," Elder said.
The Hilton's guest rooms have 9-foot ceilings, instead of 8-footers. The bathrooms in the guest quarters are lined with marble and laid out so the toilet is off to the side, instead of being the centerpiece typical in most hotel baths.
The guest rooms' work areas have granite countertops and plugs for guests' laptops in easy reach. The coffee pot is on a granite-topped counter above the minibar fridge.
"It's not just a dreary place to go and lay your head at night," Elder said.
The hotel has a 24th-floor glassed-in swimming pool with a skyline view. It should be noted, however, the vista is marred by the hotel's next-door neighbor: a grid of power lines.
The hotel has three towers: a 24-story tower, a 17-story and a 19-story tower. Throughout the building there are distinctive finishes, brightly colored contemporary carpeting and exotic building materials.
One of the hotel's restaurants has Asian Rain Cinnamon Brown flooring made of wood from recycled railroad ties from China. The blue granite on the hotel's 24th floor is from Africa. The elevator cabs have black marble from Italy.
A huge gold and blue depiction of a world map hangs over the lobby bar, its oceans reminiscent of a swirling Van Gogh.
The artwork in the hotel is primarily the work of artists from Texas, including Houston artists Joe Mancuso, Terrell James and Paul Kittelson.
A number of architects had a hand in designing the hotel, including Arquitectonica of Miami and the Gensler firm of Houston.
Arquitectonica has designed many striking contemporary buildings around the nation including the office tower with a hole in it that was shown every week in the introductory footage for the Miami Vice TV show.
The exterior of the Hilton hotel, conceived by Bernardo Fort-Brescia, co-founder of Arquitectonica, has a facade composed of a weave of larger metal panels of gray, green-gray and copper -- representing earth, sky and vegetation.
At the beginning of the planning stages, when Lanier began discussing the hotel design with Fort-Brescia, an immediate personal chemistry developed as the former mayor and the famous architect tuned into the same frequency.
"He is a creative person," Lanier said of Fort-Brescia. "We liked his touch and taste."
Whether the high-design of the hotel will make the city's convention business fly remains to be seen. The Hilton Americas-Houston will be larger than the 977-room Hyatt Regency Hotel, which had been the city's largest.
The Hilton will have 91,000 square feet of ballroom and meeting space -- one of the largest blocks in Texas.
All these rooms downtown are opening amid a nationwide slump. Corporations have cut back on travel budgets in a weak economy and as a fallout of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Downtown Houston has seen double trouble since Enron and other firms have downsized, generating fewer business travelers.
For the nine-month period that ended with September, downtown hotels had a 52.5 percent occupancy rate, down from 62.4 percent in the comparable period of 2002, according to PKF Consulting.
Through the third quarter, the average daily room rate in downtown in the dropped to $155, down 5.1 percent from the comparable nine months of 2002.
Rates at the new Hilton will range from $99 to $349.
The opening of the Hilton will not cure the ills of downtown's hotel business, said Keeling, the hotel consultant.
Meeting planners work several years in advance, so the Hilton and the city's convention business won't really hit its stride until 2006, 2007 or 2008, Keeling said. But he predicted the Hilton will help make Houston a major player in the convention business.
The Hilton has already booked 250,000 room nights, of which 100,000 are for 2004. The hotel is sold out for the Super Bowl. The hotel, located near the corner of Polk and Crawford just south of Minute Maid Park, also is likely to pick up some major business from the Major League Baseball All-Star Game next summer.
Other organizations with big trade shows and meetings on the books for the Hilton include the National Rifle Association, the Super Floral Show, the National Black MBA Association and the Airport Council. The NRA, with 25,000 attendees, will be the largest of the lot.
Despite the expansion, Houston's convention facilities are still not large enough to handle the nation's top 20 mammoth-size conventions.
One of the biggest, the International Builders Show put on by the National Association of Home Builders, brings in over 90,000 attendees.
The annual convention uses over 1.5 million square feet of hall space and fills dozens of large hotels, said Donna Reichle, spokeswoman for the association.
Being such a large convention means the builders must book their conventions way in advance, Reichle said. The builders association is committed for conventions through 2018 with stops scheduled in Las Vegas, Atlanta, New Orleans and Atlanta.
Even though Houston still is not equipped with enough convention exhibit space to get the nation's 20 largest conventions, it is big enough to bring in some very large meetings, such as the firearms group, said Jordy Tollett, president of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Houston's new Hilton will have good marks with trade show operators because it is located so close to the convention center, said Michael Hart, editor-in-chief of TradeShow Week magazine.
Hart, who toured the Hilton project a few weeks ago, said the new hotel and expanded convention facilities should elevate Houston in the eyes of the convention and trade show industry.
"All the elements are there. It's just a question of getting the shows," Hart said.
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