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Legion Rejects City's Pitch

Convention Bid Hurt By Shortage Of Hotel Rooms

May 3, 2005
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS -- Deep in the crowd of graying men greeting each other with calls of, "Hi, old buddy," was former Hartford Mayor Mike Peters, hard at work in this downtown hotel lobby, autographing bottles of beer labeled with his smiling mug and a simple phrase, "If you like my beer ... you'll love my city."

Peters was in Indy as an "ambassador," one of several from Hartford in town to sell Connecticut's capital city to the American Legion for its 2010 annual convention - a 12,000 person, weeklong gathering that is just as much family vacation as it is official business. It was a precocious bid by a city that's getting ready to open its own convention center. Wherever the Legion convention lands each year, it has the potential to leave more than $20 million.

Hartford, Milwaukee and Oklahoma City each wanted a chance.

The Hartford folks pitched hard. Armed with Connecticut goodie bags and personalized travel planners for each of the 30 legionnaires gathered in a hotel meeting room, they spoke of the city's location in New England, its demographics, its regional accessibility, and its historic charm. And Peters was a hit.

There was a palpable positive vibe as the Hartford delegation headed to the hotel bar to wait. As two hours went by, they started to second guess how it had gone. Then they met up with Jeff Olson, chairman of the convention commission, who broke the news.

"I'm sorry the commission did not vote to host Hartford at this time," Olson said, explaining that the concentration of meeting rooms and the lack of downtown hotel rooms in Hartford was a problem. "As Hartford continues to emerge in the market, you would be a very competitive and a very desirable city for us to look at again."

Milwaukee had won.

Showing Off Hartford

Chuck Berry wanted this bad.

As the paid administrative head of the Connecticut legion department, Berry bought into the Greater Hartford Convention & Visitors Bureau's marketing slogan - "Bring it Home." Because for him, it wasn't just about having a shorter distance to drive to the convention in 2010.

It was about bragging rights.

"To show off the city, to prove to the other states in the Northeast that a smaller state ... can put on a convention that's successful," Berry said. "It's competition, sure it is. We're military men. It's all about competition."

The legion also wanted to be a part of Hartford's revitalization, said legion member John Monahan. "As Connecticut legionnaires, we know what Hartford is about, we know where Hartford is headed, we're very proud of that, and we want to contribute to that ourselves in some way," he said.

It was May 2004 when Berry officially started the bid process by writing a letter to his national organization saying that his state wanted to be considered to host the 2010 convention.

That letter began a year of planning by Berry and Susan Koczka of the visitors bureau - locking in hotel room rates where possible, setting up transportation, organizing volunteers, and more.

"The whole idea is to get the local people of Connecticut to take an inventory of the groups they belong to ... and we'll work together," H. Scott Phelps, president of the visitors bureau, said of the importance of local support. "That's why pride of place is so important. It's important for Greater Hartford residents to feel good about Hartford and to want to bring their groups here."

It was Election Day 2004 when Olson and three others checked into the Goodwin Hotel in Hartford. They came to town, and later to Milwaukee and Oklahoma City, to check out everything for their members - from hotel rooms, to meeting spaces, to restaurants and bars, to tourist attractions, to local enthusiasm - in three days.

"They're also there to see the city, participate in the things going on in the city, and, quite frankly, spend their money," Olson said. "So it's truly, for many of our legionnaires, a vacation."

At the convention center itself, the team checked out everything from telecommunications, to the number of chairs, to the size of the exhibit hall. They looked for venues for their color guard contests, a venue for their parade, and their after-parade festival. They even took a tour with Mayor Mike - the genesis for his participation in Indianapolis.

Throughout the yearlong process, the legion aims to treat all the contenders equally, Olson said.
"We want the city ... to feel and to believe very deeply that they were part of a process that was understandable, that was fair, and that, if they place second, that they understand the process well enough to go and do an even better job," he said.

Not Enough Hotels

During their pitch Monday, the Hartford leaders spoke of locked-in hotel room rates and intricate transportation schemes to make it all work. They showed a video with Mayor Eddie A. Perez offering, "This city is ready, come see us perform," and Gov. M. Jodi Rell speaking of the region's support for the armed forces.

And then there was Peters, a paid consultant, working the room, one part salesman, one part lounge act. He spoke of the city's rebirth, of $800 million being spent to revitalize Hartford and its cultural attractions.

The legionnaires only came up with three questions - and one was a plea to hear from Peters again.

"The sign of a perfect presentation is it generates no questions," Olson said.

The problem came down to this: the legion prefers to have 2,750 of its roughly 3,700 rooms to be within a mile of the convention center, Olson said. Hartford could only provide 1,500 rooms within a mile and a half. It wasn't an automatic disqualifier, but it was a steep hurdle to overcome.

The legion complimented the group in several areas, including the stress on location, the incentive package of more than $200,000 in in-kind contributions and the support of the state legion organization. Olson said the fact that Hartford already hosts the 16,000-person Women of Faith convention was persuasive.

Had the legion been willing to be more flexible on the location of its meeting space and hotel rooms, this could have gone the other way, Phelps said. Still, he understands the legion's concern.

"If they can get all their sleeping rooms under one roof, they would," he said. "It's something that certainly we have to deal with a lot.

"Still, we're being very successful in selling the [convention] center," Phelps said, ticking off more than a dozen conventions with over 1,500 attendees that are already booked or almost booked. "I wish we could have added this one to the list."

In The Game

The Hartford folks were disappointed but not distraught. Milwaukee has a track record with the legion, having hosted the convention just a decade ago, Phelps said.

"We need to get our track record," Phelps said. "To get that word of mouth out there, `Yeah, our convention was in Hartford and they did a great job.' "

Whether or not Hartford will try again in 2011 is an open question, but one to which the delegation did not seem immediately predisposed Monday.

"We've got to wait ... and hope that somebody expands and builds more hotels downtown," Berry said.

"I liken Hartford to an expansion baseball team," Peters said. "We're just emerging as a convention city, we're getting our act together, but we still have some work to do. ... And we learned that today.

"But we were competing," he said. "And just being in the ballgame is pretty good for a city [with a convention center] that's opening its doors on June 2."

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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