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Convention Center Delivers

Facility Draws Repeat Customers, Increases Business For Area Hotels

By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

January 13, 2008

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Boat and car shows are growing, average convention attendance is on the rise, and more people have stayed in Hartford area hotels during the first 30 months of operation at the Connecticut Convention Center.

There are challenges the open earth that promises to be Front Street, the crippling cost of electricity, and the relatively small number of hotel rooms that makes landing a mega-convention in Hartford a reach.

And, while the convention center was designed to need and still depends upon a roughly $3 million state subsidy to survive, the numbers show the facility is accomplishing its mission, its boosters say. Just ask those who are booked to use the space in the fiscal year ending this June. More than 60 percent are repeats, convention center officials say.

"The first year there was a concerted effort to get the building occupied and there was obviously a certain excitement by local groups to want to use it as well," said James Abromaitis, the executive director of the Capital City Economic Development Authority. Now, Abromaitis said, the best barometer is repeat business. "That's the real name of the game."

The biggest convention center event in 2007 was the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association expo. By local estimates, 9,700 attendees used 4,315 room nights and spent an estimated $10 million in the city breaking all of the association's previous attendance records for a Northeast show.

"Our attendees loved it," said Lori Wolking, the association's director of events marketing and operations. And while exhibitors were put off by disappointing sales and the city's lackluster reputation, and the relative paucity of downtown hotels was felt, the pilots probably will be back in 2011, she said.

"I couldn't tell you how many people, including the president of our association, said, 'Gosh, we just feel so wanted here,'" Wolking said.

If the first year of the Connecticut Convention Center was about getting people in the door, the 18 months that have followed have been more focused on bringing visitors to the city and having them spend their nights and money.

While the number of small meetings and gatherings fell by more than 40 percent from the first year to the second, and the total number of conventions dipped slightly (30 the first year, 27 the second), average attendance at convention events grew and continues to grow.

The point? Fewer, but bigger, events that last several days.

"The goal is to have the larger meetings that have the greater impact on the community," said convention center official Jeanne O'Grady. "But with that comes less [calendar] space to sell."

The number of nights spent in Hartford-area hotels otherwise known as "heads in beds" is on the rise. In the two years before the center opened, annual room nights spent in Hartford- area hotels were 41,200 and 46,700 in 2004 and 2005, respectively.

But in the years since the center has opened, in June 2005, those room nights have increased: 75,300 in the first year, and 99,700 in the second year, more than 100,000 projected for the third year. Greater Hartford Convention and Visitors Bureau officials say that the center itself was responsible for 32,000 room nights in its first year, and 43,000 in its second.

The 43,000 figure does not include the United Church of Christ convention, which because of ongoing labor difficulties was moved to the Hartford Civic Center last June. Those tensions have since subsided.

Also noteworthy is the growth of attendance at the center's consumer shows boat shows, car shows, and the like. In 2006, the center welcomed roughly 90,000 visitors for such shows. In 2007, it brought in almost 140,000. One of the center's boat shows that of the Connecticut Marine Trades Association, which returns to the center this month was recognized last year as among the nation's 50 fastest growing.

These, though, aren't the kinds of shows that put heads in beds, critics note.

"It's good that they're renting the building," said Philip Schonberger, owner of the Connecticut Expo Center, which competes with the convention center and has seen its rental income cut in half since the center opened. "But there are no overnight stays associated with consumer shows. People come, they do their thing for two hours, and they leave." The task now is to better market the center and increase its efficiency, say officials at the Capital City Economic Development Authority, the quasi-public agency that oversees the building.

One goal of the center's staff and of Abromaitis' agency will continue to be to reduce expenses and whittle down the center's operating deficit. There are ways to do that, such as trimming energy costs, buying fuel on the bulk market and "stacking" multiple events in the building on the same day.

The latter, O'Grady said, "is efficient for staffing, it's efficient for energy consumption, and it's efficient for equipment needs." Plus, no one wants to be in an empty convention center, she said.

Also of concern is justifying the need for the continued state subsidy to the legislators who approved paying for it. The $120 million center was designed as a "loss leader" a facility that loses money but is intended to generate revenue for the city. Its state-subsidized operating deficit grew from $2.5 million in its first year to $3 million in its second, which ended June 30, 2007.

To gauge its continued economic viability, the center is undergoing an economic impact study that will help quantify just how much wealth it has generated. The study should be ready soon, Abromaitis said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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