|By Andrea L. Stape, The Providence Journal, R.I.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Oct. 30, 2005 - HARTFORD -- The Northeast's next great convention center.
That's how Connecticut is selling the new Hartford convention center.
And looking out of its 115-foot glass atrium, 10 stories above the Connecticut River, the view is impressive. The Connecticut Convention Center, which opened in June, features a gallery of local art and the floors are covered in custom carpet. Connected to the gleaming convention center stands a new $81-million, 22-story Marriott Hotel tower with 409 rooms.
Rhode Island is feeling the pressure.
"In some regards it's a threat because it's a new kid on the block," said Neil Schriever, vice president of sales for the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau."We can't expect our hotels to start dropping their rates, nor can we start dropping our rates because there's a new convention center online," he said.
It's a new type of competitive pressure for the Rhode Island Convention Center, which over the past 12 years has built itself into a desired convention destination. Until recently, one of the biggest concerns for the Rhode Island Convention Center Authority was not having enough hotel rooms in the city to attract larger events. Now, 472 new hotel rooms are set to come online in Providence in the next two years. The Westin Providence is adding 200 rooms and a new 272-room Marriott is going up in the former Masonic Temple next to the State House.
Now, though, convention centers are popping up in mid-tier cities across the nation and places such as Hartford are providing increased competition for Rhode Island.
"It is a very competitive marketplace right now -- particularly in the small to midsize facilities around the country," said Regina McGee, editor of Association Meetings Magazine, a convention industry trade publication.
Cities across the nation have poured billions into building and updating convention centers. Public spending on convention centers doubled over the past 10 years, to $2.4 billion a year, according to a study done earlier this year by the Brookings Institution, a policy and research group in Washington, D.C. There are 44 cities nationwide that are currently in the midst of expanding or building a convention center or have opened a new one this year, according to Brookings. They include mid-tier competitors to Providence such as Hartford, Conn.; Springfield, Mass.; Cincinnati, Ohio; Tampa, Fla.; and Virginia Beach, Va.
"Competition is more fierce than ever before," conceded Brian Whiting, president of the Providence Warwick Convention & Vistors Bureau.
To combat additional competition, the CVB is working with Providence hotels and others in the tourism and hospitality market to develop a strategic five-year marketing plan.
Hartford didn't seem like the most obvious source for a threat. Last year, when Paul MacDonald, a director on the convention center authority's board, heard that the staff was taking a bus trip to Hartford to check out its new center, he was in disbelief.
"Hartford? Hartford?" asked MacDonald during a monthly meeting last year. He was incredulous that Hartford, the city of insurance, could be a competitor to the Renaissance City.
MacDonald said he wasn't getting on the bus.
But Rhode Island was in Hartford's position 12 years ago. Providence's reputation was questionable, the city's hotel rates low and it had little attraction for conventioneers.
Last year, the convention center in Providence only had 35 days when the lights were off, and the price of hotel rooms has risen this year to an average rate of $142 a night, according to Smith Travel Research, a hotel market research firm in Tennessee.
If Providence's track record over the past decade is any indication, Hartford is poised to do well.
More than $1 billion of public money has been poured into downtown Hartford's revitalization since 1998. Complementing that is more than $800 million in private capital. In addition to the new convention center and connected hotel, the city is renovating its civic center and attaching a condo high-rise. Downtown office buildings and hotels have been revamped and ground was broken last week for a new science center in the convention center complex, which is known as Adriaen's Landing.
Hartford's convention center has 140,000 square feet of exhibition space, compared with Providence's 100,000 square feet.
Hartford has a ballroom twice as big as the one in the Rhode Island Conventon Center. Providence has about 1,700 hotel rooms, according to Smith Travel Research. The Greater Hartford area bosts close to 11,000, according to Smith Travel. The average daily hotel room price in Hartford in July was $85, in Providence it was $112.
The Hartford convention center sales team says it isn't focused on stealing events from Providence. New England should work together to attract events, said Michael Van Parys, vice president of sales for the Greater Hartford Convention & Visitors Bureau. But some of the things Van Parys says sound eerily familiar:
"We're a very walkable city."
"We are an affordable city."
The Capital City Economic Development Authority in Hartford estimates that events at the convention center will attract 250,000 new customers to the city in the first year of operations. Rhode Island attracted 434,000 attendees to events last year.
"One of the positives we have in Hartford is that we can be aggressive in our pricing structure," said Van Parys.
Len Wolman, chairman and chief executive officer of the Waterford Group, which is managing the new Hartford Marriott, says the two facilities and the two states should work together rather than worrying about competition. Wolman is also CEO of BLB Holdings, which is buying Lincoln Park, the racetrack and gambling parlor in Rhode Island.
While the two will probably do some poaching from each other, he said, the two centers need to focus make the Northeast look more attractive overall. Since conventions don't come back to the same facilities year after year, the cities and the centers need to work together to keep conventions alternating between the facilities in New England.
"There's an opportunity for both to be successful, if properly marketed," said Wolman.
But James McCarvill, executive director of the Rhode Island Convention Center Authority, says he's not concerned about the competition and is continuing to push for more hotel development in Providence.
With a strong reputation built over the past decade, and more direct access to major cities than Hartford, there is still strong demand for Providence, said McCarvill. He remains convinced that Hartford -- and Springfield and other mid-tier markets with new and revamped centers -- will be no more than passing price threats.
"I do believe that regardless of the changes in the competitive set, the opportunity is there to increase the quantity and quality of conventions," in Providence, said McCarvill.
He cites graduation season as an example. In May, when Rhode Island is swarming with people eager to celebrate college graduations, it's impossible for the convention center to host a convention -- too many hotel rooms are taken up by proud parents, said McCarvill. With new hotel rooms coming online, the city will soon be able to handle graduation and a convention in May, he added.
"This city and state deliver more than people expect and I don't know how many other cities can provide that," said McCarvill.
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Copyright (c) 2005, The Providence Journal, R.I.
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