|By Sara K. Clarke, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Apr. 3, 2008 - Workers scrambled about The Westin Imagine on Wednesday, assembling tables that had just arrived, cleaning carpets one last time and shifting giant concrete planters into place at the front entrance.
When the new condominium-hotel on Universal Boulevard opens this morning, it will be the first -- and probably the only -- new convention-area hotel to open in Orlando this year. With sweeping views of the Orange County Convention Center, the 315-room hotel will offer a walking-distance commute to the center's 2.1 million square feet of exhibit space.
The Westin is the first completed piece of a 29-acre development called Village of Imagine. The project's developer initially planned to combine three hotels with a waterside walkway lined with about 40 restaurants and boutiques.
"What we try to do is create a place that demonstrates or highlights the local attributes of a place," said Trevor Dunn, vice president of development for Intrawest ULC, the project's Canadian developer. "We aim to have unique and boutique vendors."
Intrawest specializes in ski resorts, though it also owns Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort in Florida's Panhandle. Shortly after Orange County greenlighted Village of Imagine, Mayor Richard Crotty compared the planned district to San Antonio's famed Riverwalk, but with an "old world Florida" theme.
But while the hotel broke ground in March 2006, the commercial complex has not followed suit. And the land slotted for the second and third hotels remains mostly vacant.
"The market has turned a little bit on us," said Dunn, noting that problems in the nation's credit markets have prompted the company to take a second look at its financing options. "It's not particular to us. It's just the general market."
Without a critical mass of guests pouring out of three hotels, prospective tenants are reluctant to get involved in the planned dining-and-shopping district.
"What we heard from the tenants was, 'Don't rush the commercial part and put the strain on us, the operators,' " said Mike Speicher, general manager for The Westin Imagine. "I think the timing is going to depend on Intrawest's ability to deliver the next hotel on the site."
The number of guests staying nearby should rise dramatically in 2009, when a 1,400-room Hilton is scheduled to open alongside the convention center.
Whatever happens, it is unlikely Intrawest's land will remain vacant. Orlando is "probably the hottest hotel market in the U.S.," Dunn said. An undersupply of conference-center hotel rooms and a growing hotel room rate make the area attractive to developers. "Something will get done here," he predicted.
In the meantime, the first hotel is expecting to draw traffic from meeting planners and convention goers.
With granite countertops, its trademarked "Heavenly Bed" and other amenities, the Westin is hoping to compete with nearby luxury hotels such as the J.W. Marriott, The Peabody and the Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld.
"Luxury is the new expectation, particularly in travel," Speicher said.
Speicher also expects the hotel to draw Westin fans, who have few other options in the region. The Walt Disney World Swan is a Westin-operated hotel, but the only other hotel available nearby -- the Grand Bohemian in downtown Orlando -- dropped the Westin flag in 2006.
"Right now, they're staying at other hotels in Orlando," Speicher said. "We see a lot of people migrating from other properties to the Westin hotel."
Sara K. Clarke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5664.
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