"As a facility it's gorgeous," Zahava Stroud, president of iHollywood Forum in Los Angeles, says of Hartford's new Connecticut Convention Center. But, she adds, "I would never do an event in Hartford.
August 20, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer
On a stage lined with square, candlelit tables for 12, the guests sipped chilled sweet-corn soup, nibbled on crisp morels and clapped after each move of the Cirque du Soleil-like performers who hung and twirled above.
The day for the convention planners had begun with a breakfast of rack of lamb, omelets and blintzes, continued with a clambake lunch with lobster tails and London broil, and finished with the on-stage dinner at the Bushnell anchored by beef filets and lobster mashed potatoes.
The no-crustacean-barred treatment was the kind of thing the Society of Independent Show Organizers has come to expect. About 200 meeting planners came to Hartford last week for a three-day educational conference, but they were also here to check out the Connecticut Convention Center and the city.
The members of the group have the power to steer conventions to Hartford.
"It gives us an opportunity to leave them with a very good feeling about Hartford," said H. Scott Phelps, head of the Greater Hartford Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We try to make it as easy as possible for them to choose Hartford."
Many of the planners said they were impressed by the facility, by the staff, and - no surprise here - by the food.
Despite the treatment, though, Hartford remains a tough sell for many conventiongoers. A number of planners said they wouldn't book an event in a city that isn't known as a destination and doesn't have the allure of New York, Los Angeles or Las Vegas.
"Do you want my honest opinion of Hartford as a facility?" asked Zahava Stroud, president of iHollywood Forum in Los Angeles. "As a facility, it's gorgeous. I would never do an event in Hartford."
Stroud handles shows for executives from the entertainment and technology industries. They want locations central to their industry, easy to get to - Stroud couldn't get a direct flight here from Los Angeles - and with a certain panache.
"You could offer me tax incentives to do my event here, and I wouldn't do it," she said. "It's not the money. It's because I could not attract my audience to come here, because their perception is, `What? Hartford?'"
But there were also those like Bob Macgregor, head of the Canadian arm of Diversified Business Communications, which books shows for myriad organizations. Before coming last week, Macgregor had never seen Hartford and "never in a million years" would he have considered it as a show location.
Now - for the right show with the right fit - he would.
"The next time we talk about a location in New England, I could say, `Let's take a look at Hartford,'" he said.
The key, Macgregor and others said, is finding the right fit. The industry trend is moving toward regional shows targeted to the region's business environment, planners said. So while Stroud's national technology shows might not find a home here, one of Macgregor's financial services shows might.
Macgregor handles more than two dozen shows himself; his international company handles many more. The trick for Hartford - actually for any city - is to know its market, he said.
"What we're finding is that a lot of the tier-two cities are pulling very well," he said. Hartford is one of those second-tier cities. "Because if you put something in your backyard that you didn't have before - well, you always had to go to Boston, you always had to go to New York - you'll probably get a pretty good turnout."
The Connecticut Convention Center, open for more than a year now, has met projections when it comes to event bookings, both by number and by type. Through the end of June, the center had held 32 conventions and trade shows, 11 consumer shows, 90 banquets and receptions, and 248 meetings and other events, for a total of 381 events
As it looks to build on that, Jeanne O'Grady - who books events for the convention center - said she agrees that it's important for the center to know its market. Surgeons don't want Hartford, they want a New York, she said.
They need a bigger venue, they need more non-conference attractions, and they can afford the expense of a first-tier city and first-tier city hotel rates, she said.
"But we do great with nurses," O'Grady said. The price point, the city, and the size of the facility make for a better fit. "So we have to find where we target ourselves."
"We might not be launching the new Mac software here," she said. "But it doesn't mean that we can't do a software users conference."
Scott Goldman, president of Eaton Hall Exhibitions, works in shows that deal with food manufacturing, pharmaceutical manufacturing, business marketing, school construction and more. He likes the historic architecture of New England, the well-laid out convention center and the friendly and accommodating staff.
"It's a real possible candidate for me as a show organizer to bring an event to Hartford," Goldman said. "Within its class, I think it's in a pretty good running position, I wouldn't say that about a lot of places I've been to."
But even for those who thought Hartford is a viable location, Hartford still has some challenges it needs to overcome.
It needs more restaurants downtown. It needs more people downtown. It needs a downtown that doesn't close when the conventions let out for the night.
Jenabeth Ferguson walked from the Marriott to the Old State House Monday for a reception, and most of the storefront shops were closed.
"I think a lot of folks are looking for a nightlife," she said. "But at first perception on the walk from the hotel to the state house, it looked like the city closes down at 5."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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