Fast Start, Economic Driver

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June 2, 2008
By Sean O’Leary, Hartford Business Journal Staff Writer

Officials credit the $271-million Connecticut Convention Center with boosting hotel business in Hartford.

When the Connecticut Convention Center opened in Hartford three years ago this month, the staff got very tired very quickly.

“It was such an expansive space,” said Michael Costelli, the convention center’s general manager. “We had odometers and we realized we were walking up to 20 miles a day.”

Now staff members are outfitted with Segways.

They also have a much easier time booking conventions two or three years in the future than they did in the early days before the 540,000-square-foot, $271-million building was completed at Adriaen’s Landing.

“We can now bring people in, show them the building in action, and they actually get to touch and feel it,” Costelli said. “Before we opened and before we had events, we just had pieces of paper to show what it would be like.”

The convention center, which was expected to be a loss leader, ran a state-subsidized deficit of roughly $3 million during its first two years of operation. Figures were not available for its third fiscal year, which ends June 30.

“From a financial perspective, we’re in great shape,” Costelli said. “Traditionally, convention centers are built to drive business within a specific region rather than to act as profit centers. We’ve consistently met our funding goals.”

Officials point to the center’s impact on the city as offsetting the subsidy. When it opened in 2005, the attendance projections were for up to 200,000 per year while annual attendance has consistently topped 250,000.

GHCVB officials cite the increased number of hotel room stays, estimating the center was responsible for 32,000 in the first year and 43,000 in the second. The annual room nights in Hartford-area hotels has jumped from 75,300 during the center’s first year to more than 100,000 projected for the third year.

On Wednesday, the convention center will hold an open house from 4:30 to 8 p.m. to mark its third anniversary.

Although the center is in its infancy, it has hosted a number of repeat events, such as the Connecticut Marine Trades Association Hartford Boat & Fishing Show that was named the fastest-growing show in the country by Tradeshow Week, an industry publication.

In August, the ChampBoat Grand Prix — a series of speedboat races — will be back on the Connecticut River after a private promoter held the event in 2006.
The convention center will serve as headquarters for the event.

The Greater Hartford Convention and Visitors Bureau and Riverfront Recapture City and regional tourism arms worked cooperatively to land that major attraction. But in another recent case, they missed a major opportunity.

In January, the area’s tourism groups failed to raise $75,000 in time to secure the $1 million Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League All-American Tournament, which could have meant a $2.5 million economic boost.

The slip up served as a wake-up call for the need for better communication.

“The ChampBoat is sort of the prototype [event] because it’s an example of different groups working together,” said H. Scott Phelps, president of the GHCVB.
The city’s hotels have joined the effort, said Michael Van Parys, GHCVB’s vice president of sales.

Restaurants in the region now hold their own quarterly meeting. They decided last week to offer a 20 percent discount later this month during the annual conference of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.

“The hotels have been very hospitable and really taken pride in being ambassadors for the city,” Van Parys said.
Convention Center officials are optimistic for the opening of the Connecticut Science Center in 2009. Jeanne O’Grady, the center’s director of sales and marketing, said officials have already started discussing ways to match up exhibits with conventions.