Marathon, Convention Giving Hartford's Downtown A Boost
Hotel Owners Report Strong Bookings
By KENNETH R. GOSSELIN
October 13, 2011
Downtown Hartford hotels and restaurants savor weekends like the one coming up: The city is playing host to the ING Hartford Marathon and a convention of biomedical engineers, drawing nearly 18,000 runners and coventioneers alone, not to mention spectators.
But this is October, traditionally the city's strongest month for convention and event business. So the boost, for many in the city's hospitality industry, is already built into the thinking about how a season will shape up.
"We'd love to have October 12 months a year," Michael Van Parys, president of the Greater Hartford Convention and Visitors Bureau, said. "The reality is Hartford isn't a strong destination city. There is usually a reason for coming to Hartford, events like the marathon and conventions, the family reunions, the sporting events."
Even so, Saturday's marathon alone is expected to pump as much as $9 million into the area's economy, up from $7.4 million last year — with a majority of that staying in downtown Hartford, according to Beth Shluger, the marathon's race director.
"This is a huge economic engine," Shluger said. "These are people coming to town. They've trained for six months for this life goal. They are going to eat, shop and go out and celebrate. They're big."
With the convention on top of that, as much as $13 million could be pumped into the local economy, Van Parys said.
Downtown hotel owners report strong bookings, so solid that additional rooms had to be booked at hotels in East Hartford, Glastonbury, Wethersfield and Windsor. One estimate placed the number of rooms booked at nearly 2,000 rooms for Friday, the peak day for reservations.
In addition to the runners at the marathon, 40,000 spectators are expected along the marathon and half-marathon routes, according to estimates by race organizers. Not everyone needs lodging, but Shluger said 56 percent of the 3,000 marathon runners and 34 percent of the 6,000 half-marathon participants are from out of state. Some spectators who accompany runners to the event also are booking rooms.
The marathon comes a week later than usual, delayed because the Yom Kippur holiday fell on a Saturday this year. That made for an enviable double-shot for the city because the annual meeting of the Biomedical Engineering Society also began Thursday and runs through this weekend. And there might be some leaf-peepers staying or eating in the area.
The weekend is a welcome relief to downtown hotel owners who have struggled through a recession and a tepid economic recovery that has done little to ease unemployment. In the teeth of the recession, corporations slashed travel budgets and leisure travelers curbed vacation plans as employers made deep cuts in workforces.
One downtown hotel — the Goodwin — already struggling when the recession hit, closed in late 2008. The hotel and adjoining office building, owned by Northland Investment Corp., are now in foreclosure.
Waterford Group, which owns and operates the Hilton Hartford and the Hartford Marriott Downtown, says business travel has picked up in the last year, and is running between 5 percent and 8 percent higher than in 2010. But leisure travel is still lagging, with unemployment curtailing pleasure travel for many.
"That's why these weekends always help," Brien Fox, vice president of sales and marketing at Waterford, said. "Historically, the marathon has been a great weekend for the hotels downtown. Coupled with the convention, it's even better."
Through the first six months of this year, occupancy at hotels in Greater Hartford stood at 55 percent, according to Smith Travel Research, far below the 70 percent or more that would be considered healthy but better than the 50 percent for the same period in 2010.
Downtown Hartford has fared better than the area as a whole. For the same period, occupancy stood at 64 percent in 2011, compared with 60 percent a year earlier, according to Smith Travel Research.
Hotel room rates, however, had not followed occupancy upward in the city — though they have remained relatively stable, Fox said.
At mid-week, rates can range from $149 to $289, amid demand by business travelers. On the weekends, the rates can drop signficantly, ranging from $89 to $139, Fox said.
October had a strong lead-in this year. In late September, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association held its annual aviation summit in Hartford, drawing an estimated 7,000 visitors to the city for the three-day event.
Earlier this week, banners along the streets of downtown Hartford heralded the marathon. Posters of runners were hung in the windows of street-level retail space in the Hartford 21 complex. And downtown sidewalks were decorated with marathon-themed stencils.
The convention bureau warned that some streets Saturday would be closed in Hartford, West Hartford, East Hartford and South Windsor for the marathon, which starts at 8 a.m. In addition to the marathon and convention, there is a UConn football game at Rentschler Field in East Hartford at 3:30 p.m. and CT Whale amateur, pre-game hockey contests, beginning at 1 p.m., prior to the season opener at 7 p.m. at the XL Center.
Downtown Hartford restaurants say they are geared up for the stepped-up crowds this weekend.
"We're excited, staffed up and ready to roll for the weekend," said James Varano, owner of Black-Eyed Sally's on Asylum Street. "We need more things like this. It brings in a lot of people who normally aren't in Hartford."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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