|By June Arney, The Baltimore Sun
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Feb. 17, 2006 - Baltimore's long-awaited convention hotel is finally under way, Hilton Hotel Corp. announced yesterday.
The start of construction means that the city's convention sales team can start marketing the publicly owned hotel. Hilton, too, will open a sales office in Baltimore in August to promote what will be the city's largest hotel with its largest ballroom.
Yesterday, an elated M.J. "Jay" Brodie, Baltimore Development Corp. president and head of the newly created Baltimore Hotel Corp., said strong demand for the revenue bonds used to finance the project indicated that investors believe the city's $301 million bet will pay off.
"We all have a sense of exhilaration," Brodie said. "BACVA (Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association] and Hilton can take a picture of this shovel in the ground and start marketing. There's a credible facility to market."
The 20-story, 756-room hotel, to be located on Pratt Street adjacent to the Baltimore Convention Center, is slated to open Aug. 9, 2008.
Carl C. Thompson, executive director of the Society of Government Meeting Professionals, based in Alexandria, Va., said the start of construction is welcome news to plenty of meeting planners.
"It has big potential," he said. "Baltimore has really come back into the eye of a planner. There are some very nice hotels there now. It's easy to get in and out of, and the prices are reasonable. There are plus signs all over. You've got the harbor, the aquarium, the Hippodrome. I see Baltimore as going through a renaissance."
The publicly financed project, whose 27 hours of public hearings set a city record, saw overwhelming support once it hit the bond market, Brodie said.
The city had offers to buy 13 times the $301.7 million worth of bonds it had to sell - testament to investor confidence in both the project and the city itself, Brodie said.
"Hotels, as a category, are more risky," he said. "Given that fact, the interest is extraordinary."
BACVA will have a block of 600 rooms available at the Hilton for events booked 12 months in advance and beyond. Room rates will range from $110 to $158 from December to February and from $140 to $200 during the peak season of April to October, according to Irene E. Van Sant, project analysis director for Baltimore Development Corp.
Hilton officials said the new hotel will help serve pent-up demand.
"No exaggeration, I get an e-mail a week from our national sales staff asking when Baltimore is going to be done because they have a customer who's interested," said David Keys, Hilton's regional vice president for Northeast sales and marketing in New York.
"There's been lots of demand for Baltimore that hasn't been able to be accommodated," Keys said.
This week, BACVA officials jumped on a scheduled industry dinner as a chance to introduce Keys to potential customers.
"They heard about it, but now it's really happening," said Ronnie Burt, vice president of convention sales and services. "We can pull the Hilton flag into our sales activities."
BACVA officials have already offered a block of 600 rooms to the National Recreation and Park Association, which plans to hold a meeting here in October 2008. The deal still needs to be finalized by Hilton.
The group will be in Baltimore over nine days, booking more than 18,000 nights in area hotels during its stay.
Between 2008 and 2018, BACVA has 32 groups booked that will need 198,288 nights. Some of those groups already have designated hotels.
BACVA also has 103 groups tentatively booked during that time period with the potential of 480,145 hotel nights.
Burt said his organization is crafting marketing designed to target groups that opted against Baltimore in the past because the city lacked a headquarters hotel.
"Now that we have one, how can we get our foot back in the door with those customers," he said.
Besides 600 rooms at the Hilton, Baltimore typically is able to get 200 to 250 rooms each from the Hyatt and the Sheraton, which also connect to the convention center, Burt said.
"We can offer more inventory," he said. "We can offer a tighter package and not spread rooms out."
Copyright (c) 2006, The Baltimore Sun
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