We Built It; They Came

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Hartford Courant
Published on January 20, 2008

The Connecticut Convention Center has now been open for 2 1/2 years, and the news is positive. Average attendance at conventions is growing, as is the number of nights spent in Hartford-area hotels. A single convention last summer drew nearly 10,000 aviation enthusiasts and put an estimated $10 million into the Greater Hartford economy.

These numbers affirm the premise behind the convention center project: that Hartford would draw meetings. It’s important to keep the momentum going. Two things would help: better transportation, especially between downtown and Bradley International Airport, and another hotel near the convention center.

Both steps would encourage the trend toward larger meetings that has emerged over the past 18 months.

In the first fiscal year, the building was host to 31 large conventions and trade shows — gatherings that used more than 250 hotel rooms on peak nights — 10 consumer shows and about 300 smaller events. The overall number of events dipped slightly in the second year, but average attendance and hotel usage grew.

In the current year, projections indicate everything is on the upswing. There are 35 large conventions on the books, 220 smaller events and 11 consumer shows. Overall attendance this year is projected at 273,000, up from 244,000 in the first year. Hotel room usage, well below 50,000 room nights a year before the building opened, reached 99,700 last year and is expected to easily break 100,000 this year.

As it entertains larger gatherings, Hartford is maturing as a convention city. The Greater Hartford Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Hospitality Task Force have vastly improved promotion and coordination with downtown restaurants and entertainment venues.

To keep this going, we need another downtown hotel near the convention center. H. Scott Phelps of the convention bureau said many meeting planners want 500 rooms under one roof, as a rule of thumb. The new Marriott has 409 rooms, and not all are available at any one time. The city is moving to redevelop the long-empty former Clarion Hotel on Constitution Plaza. The Broadcast House property on the Plaza is also vacant. A hotel at either site would be a boon to the convention business, both for the hotel rooms and the meeting space.

Also, better transportation is essential to growth, as Mayor Eddie Perez recently wrote in The Courant’s Commentary section and told the MetroHartford Alliance, the area’s chamber of commerce. Improved service between Bradley International Airport and the city, along with high-speed rail service, would grow both convention business and permanent business.

This is why the convention industry is important. When we improve it, we improve the economy and quality of life for residents and workers as well.