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Connecticut Convention Center Contract Sparks Controversy

Kenneth Gosselin

July 10, 2010

The Waterford Hotel Group already is a big player in Hartford hospitality: It manages the three largest downtown hotels and the convention center in the city.

So when Waterford won a contract late last year to exclusively market events at the convention center, other hotels competing for convention business in an already slow market cried foul: Waterford would get an unfair competitive advantage.

Their protest and a review by the state attorney general has now forced a change in the contract that will prohibit Waterford from seeing room availability and rate information from competitors vying for convention hotel booking. The change is intended to allay fears that Waterford could use the information to gain bookings at their hotels.

The controversy comes as the hotel industry both locally and nationally continues to struggle amid a tentative economic recovery. It also is evidence of the high competitive stakes in the hospitality industry in the Hartford area.

One of Waterford's hotels, the Hartford Marriott Downtown, is next to the convention center, on Columbus Boulevard. Another, the Hilton on Trumbull Street, has been financially troubled, forced to seek help from the city to stay open.

For several years, Waterford has marketed the convention center for scheduling events to be held within 18 months. In December, Waterford was picked by the Capital City Economic Development Authority to also market events beyond that time frame, thus giving them the exclusive contract.

Previously, the Greater Hartford Convention & Visitors Bureau did the longer-term convention marketing and collected hotel room and rate information for potential bookings. The bureau lost the marketing contract, but is still collecting the room and rate information.

Initially, that information was to be sent to Waterford's Waterford Venue Services unit to accompany proposals for convention bookings. But that sparked protest from other hotel operators, according to the authority and the visitors bureau.

According to a report in Association News magazine, the general manager of the Crowne Plaza Cromwell wrote in December to Attorney General Blumenthal asking him to review whether the contract was a conflict of interest or an unfair business practice. The Crowne Plaza did not return a call seeking comment Friday.

James Abromaitis, the authority's executive director, said Friday the issue wasn't anticipated when the contract was put out to bid, and if the visitors bureau had re-emerged with the contract, it wouldn't have become one.

"Certainly there was no intention for anyone to get an advantage," Abromaitis said, adding that the authority worked with Blumenthal's office to address the concerns.

Waterford, which took over the additional duties as of July 1, declined to comment Friday.

Blumenthal said Friday that he wanted to ensure the contract enhanced competition and maintained a "level playing field" so all choices are presented and all hotel operators have a chance to bid.

"We sought to bring parties together and reach a solution that addresses all their concerns and promotes and protects local business and consumer interests," Blumenthal 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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