It Was Built. They Are Coming.

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By HARLAN J. LEVY, The New York Times
Published on June 26, 2005

When state lawmakers authorized spending $267 million more than five years ago to build the new, glass-dominated Connecticut Convention Center, a study then predicted that in its first year it would hold 167 events bringing in 192,000 people.

Optimists predicted more.

Now, four years after breaking ground and almost a month after the opening of the 540,000-square-foot center in Hartford, the optimists appear to be right.

Even though the 22-story, 409-room Marriott hotel connected to the center will not open until August, solid and tentative bookings for the center, the largest meeting space between Boston and New York, are already 20 percent ahead of what was predicted in that 2000 study.

Convention center officials are now projecting 200 national, regional and local conventions, trade shows and meetings in the first year, with 250,000 visitors expected, including stamp collectors, fencers and math teachers, Shriners, Asian-American hotel owners and two Muslim groups.

Fred V. Carstensen, a University of Connecticut economist and author of the 2000 study, had thought that the center would not produce the economic benefit to justify the state’s investment.

“I’m delighted,” he said about the bookings. “I was concerned whether they would be able to achieve even the forecasted level that the funding was based on, because nationally there has been a modest decline in the demand for convention space.”

By July 3, the center will have attracted an estimated 35,000 people and been host to 28 events, said Kathleen Blint, communications director of the center. On opening day, June 2, 10,000 people attended the Connecticut Xpo 2005 for Business trade show and on July 3 there will be 7,000 members of the Islamic Circle of North America and the Muslim
American Society.

In September, the International Christian Education Association is coming, followed by the Federal Highway Administration. Then the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics comes in October, before the National Science Teachers Association convention.

“We have booked 11 citywide conventions and trade shows averaging 3.3 days and 1,200 people, and we’re in final negotiations with 14 similar events, 57 other consumer shows, banquets, meetings and weddings with signed agreements and deposits, and we’re under negotiations with an additional 75 events,” said Jeanne O’Grady, the center’s sales director. “We’re on target, and we’re aggressively booking.”

In the first year, officials expect visitors to stay an average of 3.6 days and spend $266 a day, for a total of $58 million. That will generate about $13 million in net state tax revenues.

Still, not everything is rosy. Days after the center opened, the Legislature, as part of an effort to trim the state budget, cut the center’s marketing and transportation funds by 22 percent. And growth in the number of conventions and trade shows has slowed while competition among convention centers has increased.

Michael Hughes, associate editor and director of research of Tradeshow Week, an industry publication, said demand for space was not keeping up with a supply — including that in New England — that is expanding.

“Connecticut is entering an extremely competitive industry,” Mr. Hughes said. “There has been a significant building boom in convention space over the last 20 years, and the boom is continuing. There’s a significant amount of properties marketing to a relatively fixed number of events.”

The budget cut came as more of a surprise. Less than a week after the convention center’s June 2 opening — touted by the governor and state lawmakers as the key to a new era of prosperity — those same officials made cuts that shrunk the center’s 2006 marketing and transportation budget to $4.7 million from $6 million. As a result, the center canceled a bus service that would shuttle guests to and from downtown hotels and stops in between.

“It’s foolish and simply bizarre,” Mr. Carstensen said. “The whole point of the circulator is to make the whole downtown accessible to visitors, and they’ve undermined that.”

Also, the first year’s $2.4 million marketing budget dropped to $2 million.

“The state just made a huge investment in this building,” said Dean Pagani, the spokesman of the Capital City Economic Development Authority. “It just seems ironic that just as the building is opening and attempting to put its best foot forward that we are going to have to reduce marketing efforts.”

H. Scott Phelps, the president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the moves were frustrating.

“We’ve put the convention center and Hartford on the map, and we really need to build on that momentum and not go backward,” he said.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell proposed cutting the convention center’s funds by $500,000, but there was one proposal to trim the budget by $2.3 million. After negotiations, the budget was reduced by $1.3 million.

“The governor was very concerned with the consequence on the future of the convention center,” said Dennis Schain, the spokesman for Mrs. Rell. “She stressed the need to restore that funding, and she did manage to get a significant portion of it put back.”

The biggest challenge is the increasing competition. Between July 2004 and June 2005, nine new convention centers opened, Connecticut’s being the largest. There are convention centers in Providence, R.I., and Worcester, Mass., and the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass., is scheduled to open in October. And 13 others will complete expansions, including the Springfield Civic Center.

The keys to faring well are product differentiation and brand building, said Brian Whiting, head of the Providence Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Those that are lacking are falling by the wayside and are really, really starting to struggle to attract business.”

Mr. Hughes said the Connecticut center’s advantage was that it has more than 40 percent more space than Providence and Worcester, and three times the space that will open in Springfield.

The Hartford center — as long as three football fields and as wide as a football field and a half — features a 140,000-square-foot exhibit hall that can hold 800 trade-show booths, a 40,000-square-foot ballroom, 16 meeting rooms and a glass-enclosed atrium 10 stories high.

With 1,600 rooms among six hotels, the center also has more accommodations within walking distance than Providence (1,500 rooms), Springfield (1,100) and Worcester (473).

While 1,600 rooms are adequate for regional conventions, they aren’t enough to get large national shows.

“The lack of major convention hotels right in the downtown area is our greatest weakness,” said Michael Van Parys, vice president of the Greater Hartford Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We have to go to numerous hotels in order to fill large convention blocks of 600-plus rooms.”

The Hartford center has a definite size advantage over Worcester’s, said James E. Rooney, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. “It will be a tough challenge. Hartford as a city probably has greater name recognition within the convention and meetings community.”

There are enough events for both without cutting into each other’s business, Mr. Rooney said. “Both have potential for different reasons. Do I believe they both can succeed? Yes, with the right execution.”

Connecticut’s convention center has “excellent demographics,” Mr. Hughes said, with 23 million people living within a two-hour drive and easy accessibility to major highways and an international airport only 12 miles away. “Event planners will value the abilityto reach those demographics,” he said. “That’s its main selling point and strength.”

That factor and the convention center’s size is attracting conventions that previously passed on Connecticut because of the lack of space. The 1,500 members of the National Music Educators Association and 30 invited school performing groups are coming to Hartford for three days in March 2007 for their Eastern Division biennial conference. This year, the conference was in Baltimore. In 2003, Providence was host to it. Philadelphia, Boston, Hartford, Buffalo and New York City vied for the 2007 prize, said Margaret Jamborsky, director of meetings and conventions.

“It came down to Philadelphia and Hartford,” she said. Why Hartford?

“Affordability and location, location, location,” she said. “It’s absolutely dead center in our eastern division. But price was probably the biggest factor, and size. We didn’t have the option of coming to Hartford before the convention center was built.”