Hartford: An attractive convention destination, expert says

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By Harlan Levy, Journal Inquirer
Published: Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Hartford area has all of the elements necessary to be a meaningful player in the convention market, according to a report released Wednesday on the area’s attractiveness compared to 19 other comparable areas nationwide.

Indeed, the Hartford area ranks favorably, if not better, as a convention destination in several key factors than major competitors such as Providence, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, the report’s author said at a conference on the convention industry’s future held at the Crowne Plaza Cromwell and sponsored by the Greater Hartford Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“The Hartford area is very well positioned in the driving market and has good highway access, hotel occupancy is lower so you’ve got rooms for people to stay, and the cost of meals is relatively lower,” George Fenich of the North Carolina-based Fenich Associates told 100 hotel, convention, and tourism officials at the conference.

Also, Hartford has a modern convention center, which opened in June 2005, with spacious exhibit and meeting room accommodations.

The good news in dire economic times is that the convention business should do relatively well, Fenich said.

“Overall, whether it’s Hartford or other communities, being a player in the convention market, in fact, is a relative strength,” Fenich said. “Businesses realize they need to have conventions. Associations, doctors, even your massage therapists who need continuing education have to go to a convention to achieve that education. So, conventions will continue to be held, and the potential for that business remains relatively stronger than business in general.”

That’s because conventions book far in advance, typically in a three- to five-year window, Fenich said.

“If you are the meeting planner booking a convention for three years from now, will you book it based on what you’re seeing in the next 12 months or what you saw historically?” he asked. “The answer is ‘historically,’ which is a much higher level.”

Fenich also compared the convention market with the leisure market, which is substantially down.

“The leisure traveler is much more price-sensitive, is much more variable, and is much more impacted by the economy than is the convention market,” he explained. “Las Vegas is down 15 percent. Why? Because I don’t have to gamble. But if I’m a doctor I have to go to the medical convention to get my continuing education credit. If I’m a manufacturing company, I need to have those sales training meetings to get my people out on the road to sell my product. I can’t get rid of them, but I can cut back on my vacation.”

In his report, Fenich compared the Hartford market with the other 19 areas on the 20 most relevant factors that determine destination attractiveness. The 19 competitors are Boston, Baltimore, Buffalo, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Columbus, Louisville, Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Norfolk, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Providence, Raleigh, Sacramento, San Jose, Savannah, and Spokane.

The relevant factors — and Hartford’s rank out of 20 — are total convention hotel rooms (18), total hotel rooms in the market (16), population growth (17), total public convention center exhibit space (12), largest convention center exhibit space (15), restaurants (15, tied with Providence), room occupancy percentage (3, with 58 percent, behind only Louisville and Cincinnati), restaurant quality (13, right below Providence, Charlotte, Milwaukee, and Madison), average daily rate (13, ahead of Providence, 19, and Boston, 20), per-diem meal cost (2, below Milwaukee), hotel quality rating (14, ahead of Providence, 17), population diversity (7), transportation index (13, ahead of Boston, 17, and Providence 18), air lift (13), crime (13), climate (20), shopping (12, below Boston, 1, and Providence, 9), highways (2), leisure activities (16), and arts and culture (6, below only Boston, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh).

Transportation access is good, Fenich said.

Also, he said, “People who drive tend to spend a little bit less per trip than people who fly, and the price of a meal fits in well. The people driving from New Haven or Springfield are not coming here because they want to get the meals that are here, so you’re well-positioned in that regard.

“Bradley International Airport supplements that strength,” Fenich said. “It’s symbiotic compared with having strength in air but not highway or strength in highway but not air.”

The climate weakness can’t be helped, Fenich said.

As for crime, Fenich said, “It isn’t really that bad. It’s not the bottom of the list by any stretch. It’s in the middle of the grouping.”

However, he added, “It’s important to be aware of it, because meeting planners have access to this information, so information Web sites need to talk about what the true crime issue is or is not” as well as the crime level where convention attendees will travel.