|By Bob Quick, The Santa Fe New
MexicanMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
July 29, 2008- As executive director of the city's convention and visitors bureau, Keith Toler is a busy man this summer.
Not only is the city's new Community Convention Center about to open, but Toler is on the road a lot -- he just got back from Alaska on a trip to promote Santa Fe and may be taking on a similar mission in Mexico City. Other trips to Las Vegas, Nev., and San Diego are in the works.
"Travel is a big part of my job," he said. "This time of year it's really busy."
Toler found time to discuss the new Santa Fe Community Convention Center, tourism and other matters in an interview last week at his office, which has been in the Santa Fe Arcade, on the Plaza, for months now. He and his staff soon will move to offices in the new center.
June is the start of the busiest time of year in Santa Fe, and visitor numbers, while not exactly breaking records, are holding their own in a tough economy. The occupancy rate in Santa Fe hotels and motels in June came in at 71.4 percent, slightly ahead of last June's 71.1 percent, according to the Rocky Mountain Lodging Report, Toler said.
Given the wobbly economy and the high price of gasoline, Toler wasn't surprised by the occupancy rate. "I would say rates will stay pretty flat," he said.
Much of Toler's focus these days is on that new, $65 million center, which is nearing completion on Marcy Street between Lincoln and Grant avenues. The structure replaces Sweeney Center, the converted gymnasium that served Santa Fe as a convention site for decades.
"We're getting calls on a daily basis about the new center" from those interested in holding an event there, Toler said. "Fiestas de Santa Fe will be the first."
That will be followed by a concert series and then by the International Conference on Creative Tourism. "People from all over the world will attend," Toler said.
Toler has been Santa Fe's tourism chief for a little more than a year.
He has worked in tourism marketing for 19 years and had directed the Bucks County bureau in Pennsylvania, which catered to New England tourists, since 2002. He headed a similar bureau in Portsmouth, Va., from 1992 to 2001.
"Moving to Santa Fe definitely involves a learning curve," said Miguel Castillo, owner of Santa Fe Audio Visual and chairman of the Occupancy Tax Advisory Board, the advisory committee to which Toler reports.
Toler "has adapted very well, and he's very enthusiastic," Castillo said. "He has a lot of skills in a lot of different areas."
Castillo said Toler will make his mark with the new convention center, but it's hard to say how well the new facility will do until it's actually up and running.
"Given the state of the economy and things like that, I hope we will bring in the numbers of people we're anticipating," Castillo said.
Another member of the Occupancy Tax Advisory Board, Paul Margetson, general manager of Hotel Santa Fe, said he was "delighted" that Toler is on the job.
"It's still early, but the real impact will come when the center opens. The convention center will allow us to compete not only with Albuquerque but also with Buffalo Thunder and the Sandias of the world," he said.
"I think our clients will be very pleased with the new convention center," Toler said. At 20,000 square feet, "the ballroom is the largest single space in the area." That compares to the 10,000 square-foot Sweeney Center.
"Plus we have 11 breakout rooms," Toler added.
The electronics in the center is state of the art, with WiFi wireless Internet service and a room that allows control of audio-visual activities throughout the facility.
Each visiting group will be able to choose its own AV company to provide the service, and catering, too, will be up to each group.
"What we're trying to do here is encourage local businesses" to provide the services, Toler said. "And we're not doing our own catering -- we have a list of approved caterers" clients will choose from. "It gives our clients a chance to make choices and receive competitive bids from caterers."
The center is expected to be heavily booked, and in 2009, its first full year of operation, Toler expects the facility's occupancy to be around 60 percent. Projections increase to 70 percent in 2010 and then 80 percent in 2011.
"We estimate the occupancy rate will level off at 80 percent," Toler said. " It's a little on the high side, but if we don't stretch our goal, then we're not doing our job."
Toler expects downtown hotels and those out on Cerrillos Road to benefit from a busy convention center. "It will impact the entire city," he said.
The center will be competing with the Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino, which will have even more ballroom space -- 29,000 square feet -- than the Santa Fe Community Convention Center.
"Everything they've done is first class," Toler said. "They will be competing with us in the convention area."
Santa Fe will benefit from the fact that those staying at Buffalo Thunder are likely to visit Santa Fe for shopping, Toler said.
The CAB has been promoting Santa Fe in a series of print and broadcast advertisements around the country that started last fall. One of them focused on Santa Fe as a winter getaway location, while the spring campaign emphasized Santa Fe as a place for rejuvenation and healing.
A fall campaign will start early to lure Denver residents wishing to be out of town during the Democratic National Convention.
"The overall strategy is to depict Santa Fe as a contemporary urban oasis in the high-mountain desert," Toler said.
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