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East Hartford, Connecticut Hotel Developer,
First Merchants Group, Eyes Lucrative Niche Market

By Kenneth R. Gosselin, The Hartford Courant, Conn.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jun. 9, 2009--The number of guests staying at Hartford-area hotels slid sharply in the first four months of 2009 compared with last year, as the recession takes a toll on business and leisure travel.

But the developer of a 121-room, limited service hotel under construction at Founders Plaza in East Hartford still likes what he sees: a five-minute walk to downtown Hartford on a pedestrian bridge and plenty of nearby parking for guests. The hotel would also be a cheaper alternative to most downtown hotels.

"When we started planning this project, we didn't know what the economy was going to be in three years," said Gregg Sapere, a partner in First Merchants Group in East Windsor. "Now, we're not looking at the next year but the next five years, the next 10 years."

The $16 million Hampton Inn & Suites, expected to open in November, could carve a lucrative niche in the Hartford market as most of the hotels in the city's center, or even the nearby Sheraton in East Hartford, are more expensive, local hospitality industry experts said.

The Hampton Inn could charge roughly $100 to $110 a night. That's below the most recent average of $122 for the Hartford area.

"You widen people's choices where they can stay," said Suzanne Hopgood, president of the Hopgood Group, a hotel consulting firm in Hartford. "That will help the convention center because it gives a range of price points."

Large conventions have had to book rooms as far away as Bradley International Airport, some of which are also "limited service" hotels, generally meaning no restaurant or bar, but often continental breakfast, as would be the case with the Hampton Inn. But that can be a deterrent in convention bookings because coordinating transportation over distances is a time-consuming task, she said.

Sapere said he has already received calls from convention groups wanting to book for September and October. But Sapere said he thought that schedule might be too tight if construction, begun a year ago, hits any snags.

The local hotel industry took it on the chin at the end of last year, when the Goodwin Hotel, in the heart of downtown, closed, awash in red ink. Hartford-area hotel operators report that they're in one of the toughest periods, as businesses cut back on corporate travel and leisure travelers curtail plans. A rebound in hotel bookings isn't expected until the beginning of next year, at the earliest.

This is the first hotel project for First Merchants, but the firm is already a major commercial property owner in East Hartford with the 111 Founders Plaza tower next to the hotel.

Sapere said his family has strong ties to East Hartford, where his grandfather had a barber shop after emigrating from Italy in the 1920s.

First Merchants will continue to own the Hampton Inn once construction is complete and hold it in its portfolio of commercial properties, primarily in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

"We are in this for the long term," Sapere said.


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