Hotels strategize to gain conference business

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The International Hall at The Broadmoor hotel and resort filled up last week as 550 public safety officials from across the country readied for their four-day conference.

Mayor Steve Bach welcomed the group to Colorado Springs and told them about some of the city’s highlights.

“I would appreciate it if you would spend some money here,” he said with a laugh.

And he’s not the only one. That’s the name of the game for hotels every November.

November marks the beginning of the off-tourism season, when demand for hotel rooms is at its lowest and the pursuit of group meetings starts. In the hotel industry the next six months is known as “value season” — when groups are looking for the best deals and hotels are ready to give them.

“It’s all about getting as many groups as you can,” said Jim Breeden, general manager at the Colorado Springs Marriott, which has 17 meeting rooms.

This year, after two years of groups cancelling their annual meetings and leaving hotels high and dry, there are signs that national and state associations, military groups and businesses are ready to meet again.

“We have seen upticks, progressively, as we move into 2012 and beyond,” said Dennis Lesko, vice president of marketing at The Broadmoor, which has 185,000 square feet of meeting space.

Group meetings have long been the saving grace of the hotel industry’s off-tourism season. But, in 2009, meetings, along with the rest of the travel industry, took a nosedive. Organizations cancelled their big annual meetings and conventions, said Pam Sherfesee, Colorado Spring Convention and Visitors Bureau vice president of sales.

“We were losing pace and market share,” she said.

In 2007, the CVB booked 230,066 room nights. In 2008, room nights booked through the CVB dropped to 204,409 and in 2009 it dipped further to 201,907 room nights. Those room nights do not include groups that worked directly with the hotels.

Sherfesee estimates that about 30 to 40 percent of all room nights sold are for groups. Military reunions and association meetings are two groups that have consistently booked the most rooms in the city, she said.

In 2010, there were blips of group meeting business but then it would get quiet, Sherfesee said.

“Now, we are starting to see all the markets perform,” she said.

Colorado Springs is coming off a summer of big events, including the U.S. Women’s Open, The Rocky Mountain State Games and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, that helped fill up hotel rooms. The city’s Lodger’s and Auto Rental Tax collection, so far this year, is up 6.58 percent over last year.

October and November were good, even above last year, Breeden said. Now the industry kicks into meeting mode. He sends sales reps to trade shows year-around to sell the off-season months.

Sales reps from the CVB attend 35 conventions a year where they meet with event and meeting planners. They are selling rooms, activities, attractions and the weather.

“We put on a full-court press in these months,” Sherfesee said.

Eighteen hotels in Colorado Springs can handle large conventions or group meetings with about 5,000 rooms available. Citywide, there are 14,000 rooms available, which include bed and breakfast rooms. On average, groups are looking for space for about 250 participants.

“What we have to work on is letting people know how good the weather is year around,” said Doug Price, CVB president and CEO. “It’s safer to do a meeting here, from a weather stand point, than Kansas City or Chicago.”

Across the state, room rates are making a slow, methodical assent back to pre-2008. The bump in room rates is viewed as positive recovery in the hospitality industry. In 2010, the average daily room rate in Colorado was $118.77. So far, this year, the average is $121.03, according to the October Rocky Mountain Lodging Report. In the Springs, room rates are up just $3, on average, to $88 over last year.

Room rates are not the only deciding factor when choosing a location for a big event, said Amy Ledoux, senior vice president of meetings, expositions and events at American Society of Association Executives. ASAE plans 45 large group meetings a year and is bringing its Great Ideas conference and an estimated 600 participants to The Broadmoor in March.

The Broadmoor “priced it right in this off season,” Ledoux said. But, more importantly, the location fits the conference.

“The Great Ideas conference is going beyond what is normal in meetings,” she said. “We really felt that Colorado Springs and The Broadmoor provided the venue and the back drop to help people be creative.”

ASAE had its Great Ideas conference at The Broadmoor in 2009 and last year. It had previously been held in Florida.

“We took a little bit of a risk in wondering how our attendees were going to perceive going from Miami to Colorado Springs,” Ledoux said “Ninety percent of participants felt it was the perfect location.”

ASAE has signed a multi-year contract with The Broadmoor into 2016.

For The Broadmoor, group meetings are its life’s blood, making up 70 percent of room bookings, Lesko said.

“We never ever lose sight of that,” he said.

It takes a lot of wooing to get conventions and group meetings to Colorado Springs, Sherfesee said. Four years ago she joined a Broadmoor sales manager and the former Colorado Springs chief of police for a pitch to the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.

They had 20 minutes to sell the organization — which was planning a conference for more than 1,000 folks and an estimated $850,000 economic impact — on Colorado Springs.

“They had narrowed their search down to three,” Sherfesee said.

The 15 CALEA commissioners saw photos of Colorado Springs and were presented with a layout of The Broadmoor, a financial package and a list of events — like time at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo or skating at the World Arena — to top off the proposal.

“We create a picture, so in their minds, they can visualize that their meeting fits,” Sherfesee said.

Last week marked the third time the organization brought its accreditation conference to Colorado Springs.

“Meetings mean business,” Sherfesee said. n CSBJ