State Business Not Much Help To Sagging Tourism Industry
By M. Renee Migiel
March 22, 2010
When the Connecticut legislature rolls into Hartford each year — bringing 187 legislators, scores of lobbyists, journalists and temporary staff — the city’s merchants see a rise in business activity.
It’s measureable. But by all accounts it’s more of a ripple than a tsunami. What booms in other state capitals — cities like Sacramento and Santa Fe during their respective legislative sessions — barely squeaks in Hartford.
In Connecticut, most legislators head straight home when they’re done for the day. For breakfast or lunch in town, they are more likely to hit the cafeteria in the Legislative Office Building (it closes at 3 p.m., 4 p.m. during the session) then seek out a sit-down restaurant for a between session nosh.
At Vito’s by the Park, chef/owner Rob Maffucci said come early February, he’ll notice “more guys in suits” at the bar, and then he’ll realize the legislature is back in town.
Catering picks up; Maffucci quipped that Vito’s is bi-partisan and caters to members of either party. Between the added bar business and catered lunches or dinners, the restaurateur estimates he adds another 5 percent a week to his coffers during the session.
But part of that, he said, also comes from accountants working into the night to meet April tax deadlines.
“Come March we turn into the basketball capital of the world, we have St. Patrick’s Day and sometimes we get the call at 4 p.m. that someone is organizing a dinner for 50 that night,” Maffucci said. “It’s a fun time of the year.”
The privately owned Morton’s on Main Street doesn’t talk numbers, but general manager Josh Itkin said the steakhouse is seeing a gradual uptick in business overall, both in the main dining room and the private dining rooms that can be reserved for meetings.
“As the economy slowly improves, we see more people staying in Hartford after work meeting with their clients face to face again,” Itkin said. “We’re hearing from many of our guests that more business travel is starting to take place again.’’
When it comes to hotels, though, the legislative session is almost a non-starter. Considering Connecticut is such a drivable state (with an average length of 90 miles, and an average width of 55 miles), most legislators and staffers don’t choose to rent rooms overnight unless a session runs extremely late.
Brian Fox, vice president of sales and marketing for the Waterford Hotel Group, said while the legislative session causes little impact on the five Hartford hotels the group manages, the Big East tournament was a boom week.
The Waterford Hotel Group doesn’t release vacancy rates, he said.
“I’ll be honest. From the hotel perspective, the legislative session is just a moderate thing,” Fox said. In Hartford, the Waterford Group manages the Connecticut Convention Center, the Hilton Hotel, the Marriott Hartford Downtown, the Residence Inn by Marriott Downtown and the Sheraton Bradley.
“If a legislator ends up staying late in session, we might get a phone call asking, ‘Can I get a room? What’s the rate?’ but it’s nothing substantial,” he said. “It’s not at all a game changer.”
Bonnie Stewart, vice president of government affairs for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said the association’s lobbyists are in the legislative building almost constantly during the session.
Meetings tend to take place between sessions and in the hallway, meaning there’s no opportunity for chatting over a meal.
“It just tends to be one meeting after another,” Stewart said. “And regardless of the hour, the legislators tend to drive home to be with their families or in their own homes for the evening, and the same is definitely true of the lobbyists.”
It’ll be awhile before the tourism industry can expect an uptick from private sector business activity.
According to a report issued in January by OLR Research on the impact of the financial crisis on the state’s hotel and tourism industry, analysts expect the demand for business travel to remain flat in the near- to mid-term.
Room occupancy, which had dropped by a record 17.9 percent in the last quarter of 2008, remained down by 15.4 percent in the third quarter of 2009 and hovers near 50 percent. Tourism related tax collections, meanwhile, are projected at $66.1 million for the state in 2010, rising to $68.8 million in 2011.
Those numbers ring true for Hartford’s hotels as well.
John Fox, senior vice president of the hotel consulting group PKF Consulting, said that 50 percent number is not surprising, given the state of the economy but also the time of the year.
“It’s a slow time of the year for all hotel markets in general, but Connecticut in particular,” said Fox, who is based in the firm’s New York office. “I wouldn’t say we’re being bullish, but we are being less bearish and expect to see improved numbers overall by the end of this year.”
Scott Phelps, president of the Hartford Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said conventions tend to be a bigger economic deal for the area than the legislative session, with conventioneers spending an average of $290 a day.
“But there’s a new normal right now,” said Phelps. “The corporate community is not on the road the way it was. Everyone wants more business.”