Visa Championships Is A Boost For Hartford Business
Visitors Keep Things Hopping For City Hotels, Restaurants
By MARA LEE
August 12, 2010
It's all about timing.
Not just for the young woman who has to start her flip at the right instant for the perfect landing, but also for the business of the Visa Championships.
Hartford's hotels rely on business travel, and August is a notorious time of doldrums.
With 2,000 to 3,000 coaches, volunteers, competitors and spectators in town, it's suddenly a busy time for waiters, cleaners and concierges.
"In a normal [summer] week, they're usually only working 30 hours," said Kimberly Cornelio, director of sales for Marriott Hartford Downtown.
The Marriott's roughly 400 rooms sold out Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Year-round, the average occupancy is about two-thirds — lower in summer.
"For us to land this type of event in August is huge, it actually makes the whole summer," Cornelio said.
And it's not just the rooms. The restaurant, lounge and Starbucks in the lobby have been full every breakfast and lunch. "There's been a line at that Starbucks for about 24 hours now, for the last three days," she said.
Curt Jensen, sports marketing manager for the Greater Hartford Convention and Visitors Bureau, projects that the competition will result in 5,000 to 6,000 room nights at the Marriott, the Hilton, the Hilton Homewood Suites, Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn Express, The Sheraton, and Hampton Inn and Suites in East Hartford.
Employees at the Hampton Inn and Suites had to help attendees overcome concerns about being far from the action by explaining that the hotel is just one mile from the XL Center, said John Tanner, the manager there. The rooms all sold out. The hotel, which opened in February, has been 45 percent full on average.
Cornelio said this is the biggest convention held anywhere in the country this summer, though it's mid-sized for Hartford overall. There are several 10,000-attendees conventions that come here, she said.
Jensen estimated that the event would bring $6 million in spending, overall. That's tiny compared with the $1.9 billion a year spent on leisure and hospitality in Greater Hartford, but it adds up to a nice week for some downtown restaurants and hotels that would have been slow otherwise. And it creates a few days of vibrancy downtown.
The visitors' bureau has been promoting eight downtown restaurants to the attendees, and Carbone's in the South End.
Mary-Beth Corraccio, Carbone's event manager, said extending the $20.10 specials for the out-of-towners has helped fill tables, though not as much as for the Taste of Hartford. "We had three rooms filled, and during the taste of Hartford, we had five rooms filled," she said. The fact that Carbone's requires a drive does make it hard to compete with downtown spots like Dish, City Steam Brewery Café or Trumbull Kitchen. "You have to get your name out there," she said.
Trumbull Kitchen was so full that it had a wait list Wednesday night, which meant about 150 or so diners — more than double a typical Wednesday, said Katie Compton, one of the restaurant's managers. "The number of people we did last night was higher than even a Friday night," she said Thursday. A concert at the XL Center drives that level of business, but this is sustained for four days, she said.
"It's wonderful to see so many people. And they're all so nice, too," she said.
When the visitors around the Fan Fest at the Old State House talked to a reporter Thursday, it wasn't the Butt Ugly building or empty storefronts that they talked about.
"I was talking to some sponsors in town who were from Indianapolis, whose Capitol looks similar except for the gilded dome, who were remarking on how beautiful a Capitol we have," Jensen said. "I've just heard raves about the restaurants, and how many good non-chain restaurants we have in Hartford."
The only restaurant Robin Heim and her 9-year-old daughter Heather had eaten at so far was Dunkin' Donuts. They came from Brentwood, N.H., to watch the competition. She said the family has been to Hartford's suburbs lots of times, visiting close friends. She and her husband and other daughter are staying with them. "I didn't realize Hartford has as much to offer as it does," she said. While she and Heather watch the gymnasts, her husband, other daughter and their friends will go to the Connecticut Science Center on the riverfront.
Julie Brinkman, of Ulster Park, N.Y., a national judge, said she has been to Hartford many times, visiting an old college roommate and judging competitions. She's staying with a local judge. She said she hopes the championships return to Hartford in the future.
"Oh, my gosh, they've really got the red carpet out," she said. "It's been lovely."
Among the ways Hartford is celebrating its guests: It has huge banners with photos of gymnasts on Trumbull Street, dubbing it "Tumble Street." There are even commemorative street signs.
William Pichardo of New York City said he's gone to more of these events than he can count in his 30 years. "I think it's a great host city. Lots to do as a tourist. Wadsworth Antheneum, I've heard so many good things about it."
But, unlike New York, or even Philadelphia, where he was in 2008, Hartford is small enough to want to make a big to-do about its guests, he said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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