Connecticut's Hotel and Convention Industry Unites At A New York Landmark


NEW YORK — In a dimly lit room inside Grand Central Station, with a high, ornate, painted wood ceiling and a stone fireplace with a carved, winged lion insignia, a piece of the Connecticut economy came to life.

There, in a gathering late Thursday, two dozen people representing hotels and other venues from Greenwich to Mystic to Windsor had cocktails and hors d'oeuvres with New York meeting planners — those crucial links to the companies and groups that fill up rooms and bring activity to a state pushing hard to bring in visitors.

Connecticut is a tough sell for some would-be clients. For others, it's an option that brings lower cost than Boston and New York, with great proximity and a solid if not spectacular list of things to do.

What matters to the Hartford-based Connecticut Convention & Sports Bureau, a private group that formed last year, is that competing venues such as the Hartford Marriott Downtown and the Sheraton Hartford South in Rocky Hill work together on efforts like this one — rather than competing in separate marketing ventures.

"There is a real sense that we do need each other," said Jeffrey Musumano, the bureau's national sales manager for corporate and association business. "Sometimes our state is the redheaded stepchild with New York and Boston, and we really do need to work together."

That was the sense in this historic room, the Campbell Apartment, as hotel representatives mingled with each other and with meeting planners. It's not a head-to-head battle in part because each hotel has its own niche.

The challenge for Gregory Moore, convention sales manager at Mohegan Sun, is to fill more of the gaming resort's 1,175 hotel rooms during the week. For Ha-Kyung Lee, sales manager at the Sheraton Hartford South, it's the opposite — filling the 251 rooms on weekends. Both face some of the same concerns, about the economy, the changing nature of meetings and conventions and the view of Connecticut as less than a full-scale metropolis.

Mohegan Sun is a national brand but as a meeting draw, Moore said, "Right now we are regional. as much as we'd like to be national."

"It's never going to be the way it was in the heyday, the '07s," Moore said. For Mohegan sun, that means "you can't just be a casino anymore....we're working on a ton of different projects."

Lee, who used to work at Mohegan Sun, balances between selling metro Hartford and her particular hotel, which was the Rocky Hill Marriott until last year. Renaming the place "Hartford South" is good for the region if that means we start thinking about the metro area as a whole.

It's even more complicated for the state, which under Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is working to unify its tourism marketing under the "Connecticut, Still Revolutionary" slogan. Fairfield County (part of greater New York), metro Hartford and the Southeast are not competing for the same visitors.

"Now that we have $15 million, we can market Connecticut as a whole," Moore said. "People are starting to understand what Connecticut is."

He was referring to the statewide tourism marketing budget, which includes $1 million for the Connecticut Convention & Sports Bureau. It was, to say the least, a sore point that budgets under former Gov. M. Jodi Rell had little money for statewide tourism marketing.

So, what's the impression of Connecticut among the meeting planners? Like the hotel managers, they have niches that color their views.

"Posh," said Maria Izquierdo, who works for the Duane Reade Charitable Foundation. "They have a lot of golf courses there."

She was looking for hotels for a Greenwich fundraising event, which explains her myopic view of the state.

Emily Prawda Weiss views Connecticut as a potential new market for her firm, Big City Moms, which runs events for new and expecting mothers, and whole families. "We're looking to expand to the New England market," said Weiss, the company's development and marketing director. "I'm excited about all these hotels that I didn't know about before."

Another planner, who works for a large financial services firm, is from Connecticut and sees concerns for business groups — chiefly that Bradley airport doesn't have direct flights to and from many locations, and that the Mystic area, with many attractions, is "too far from the grid," with no major airport nearby.

"They have a hard sell for bringing people from New York City to Connecticut," said the planner, who asked to remain anonymous because she doesn't speak for her company. "We have accessibility here that Connecticut doesn't have."

And while New York's famously high costs can be negotiated, she said, travel time can be more valuable in arranging business meetings.

For her firm, the issue is whether it can expand its client base in Connecticut, which would generate meeting activity in the state. "There are some great, newly renovated properties" among Connecticut hotels, she said.

"Spread the word for us, okay?" said Musumano of the convention & sports bureau.

The numbers say that's happening. Some hotel managers said occupancy rates are back up, though average room rates remain below 2006-07 levels.

And the Connecticut Convention & Sports Bureau is on track to meet its goal of 200,000 leads on room nights for this fiscal year, said Michael Van Parys the bureau's president. About one-third of that total ends up in booked rooms.

"Meetings are not dead," said Van Parys, reacting to a concern in the travel business that technology is cutting into bookings. "I don't know that we are exactly back to '06 levels but we're moving in the right direction."

The bureau, with 237 members statewide, including 78 hotels, was formerly a more traditional convention and visitors bureau for Hartford, where planners could turn for bookings at the Connecticut Convention Center. Now, the convention center does its own bookings, with some help from Van Parys' group. The lack of a traditional CVB, as convention and visitors bureaus are known, had led to some confusion, one meeting planner said.

That's not a problem because everyone works together, Van Parys said. More broadly, with plenty of natural challenges, the key here is for the industry to keep working together, and for the state to keep the effort going consistently, forever — not drop it when the next priority, or the next budget crisis, comes along.

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