In Colorado Springs, conventions are big business

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Crowne Plaza Office Supervisor Angela Essenberger checks in guests attending the USA Hockey Conference. Staffers donned “I love USA Hockey” T-shirts as a welcome gesture.

The line to check in at the Crowne Plaza in Colorado Springs was 50 people deep.

They were in town for the USA Hockey convention, and no one seemed to mind the wait as they chatted away about hockey and got reacquainted after meeting at previous years’ conventions.

When they finally made it to the front desk, hotel clerks greeted them wearing “I Love USA Hockey” T-shirts and the photos streaming on the television monitors behind them were of USA hockey games and events.

The Crowne Plaza hotel lobby was a party atmosphere with banners, balloons, trays of cookies, an ice sculpture and a cooking demo to welcome the 650 conference-goers. These days, the Crowne Plaza — like other hotels across the city — must roll out the red carpet for conventions, in hopes they’ll keep coming back.

“We’ve hosted this group for many years — we wanted to go above and beyond,” said Tracey Hampton, Crowne Plaza director of sales and marketing. “We want to say that they are important to us.”

Nearly 50 percent of the Crowne Plaza’s business is due to conventions and groups, Hampton said. There are big events like the International Association of Firefighters, the Air Force Academy parents’ weekend and graduation, and the Labor Day weekend balloon festival, all of which sell out the whole city.

But in between huge events, the Crowne Plaza has 500 rooms to fill.

“We have to have conventions, or we would not have our doors open,” Hampton said.

Colorado Springs is in a heated battle with at least five big competitors — Denver, Albuquerque, N.M.; San Diego.; Vail and Tucson, Ariz. — to draw conferences and group meetings. It’s also tough to compete with the likes of Las Vegas, where it’s easy and often cheap to fly, Hampton said. In this economy, resorts are coming on strong as well, she said, offering package deals that include hotel, meals and airfare.

“This year, we are working harder to find the business — it’s so competitive, even within the city,” she said.

Colorado Springs often gets overlooked by event planners who visualize a snow-covered town in the winter months. January, February and March are the toughest months to attract groups, Hampton said.

“And that is when you need them,” she said.

Across the city, conferences and meetings make up between 30 and 40 percent of the room-nights booked through the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau. Colorado Springs has 19 hotels that can handle large conventions or group meetings with about 400,000 total square feet of meeting space. Citywide, there are 14,000 rooms available, including bed and breakfasts. On average, groups are looking for space for about 250 participants.

The Broadmoor is tops with 185,000 square feet and the Crowne Plaza comes in second with 50,000 square feet of meeting space. In April, The Broadmoor launched a print and television advertising campaign targeting groups and conventions, said Dennis Lesko, Broadmoor vice president of marketing. Group meetings account for 70 percent of the hotel’s business.

Even The Broadmoor has to compete.

This year, in an effort to accommodate a growing National Space Symposium, The Broadmoor built a temporary structure in the employees’ parking lot. It has a permanent concrete pad, but included a canvas-and-steel structure just for the week of April 16-19. The new pavilion allowed the Space Foundation to accommodate more vendors than ever — about 160.

In 2011, hoteliers began to see an uptick in meetings and conventions after two years of near drought. In 2009, meetings and conferences across the country were canceled when the American Insurance Group travel scandal hit the news. Taxpayers were livid to learn that AIG, which had taken government bailout money, had a lavish retreat for its employees.

Hotel industry leaders estimate the industry lost $1 billion in corporate travel. The ripple was felt in Colorado Springs. CVB-booked rooms went from 230,066 in 2007 to 204,409 in 2009. Now comes the more recent General Services Administration scandal, which has some congressional leaders proposing limits on government travel.

So far this year, occupancy rates across the city are about where they were last year, according to the May Rocky Mountain Lodging Report, which tracks occupancy and room rates. Room rates are remaining mostly flat compared with this time last year. The Lodgers and Auto Rental Tax, collected by the city, is about 1.4 percent higher than this time last year.

A key issue for hoteliers is the booking lead time, says Christine O’Donnell, president of the Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association. The trouble is that conference organizers are waiting until just months before big conferences to make plans, which makes hoteliers nervous, she said. In years past, if conferences were not booked a year or two out, hoteliers panicked. Now they are looking at the end of summer and haven’t hit panic mode yet, she says.

“It’s not the best way to budget,” she said. “We just keep trying to stay ahead.”

It’s the reason the Crowne Plaza staff plans every detail down to the color scheme in the lobby and how to greet conference attendees, Hampton said.

“The management staff will brainstorm on what to do — will there be a special happy hour or a cooking demo or a barbeque by the pool?” Hampton said.

As the Crowne Plaza staff waved goodbye to the hockey folks earlier this month, they had 24 hours to turn the hotel into the next party for the Institute of Navigation and 700 convention-goers.

“Service is key,” Hampton said. “The dollar is so much more important.”

Conventions and events in 2011

100,069 room nights booked for conventions

101,123 room nights booked for sports and special events

350 groups serviced

$91 million generated by groups

Sources: Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau 2011 Annual Stakeholders Report and CVB Meeting Planner Guide.

Convention space

5,000 rooms at hotels and resorts

400,000 square feet of meeting space:

Antlers Hilton: 27,000 square feet

Best Western, AFA: 7,800 square feet

The Broadmoor: 185,000 square feet

Cheyenne Mountain: 40,000 square feet

Clarion Hotel: 10,000 square feet

The Cliff House: 6,419 square feet

Colorado Springs Marriott: 24,000 square feet

Crowne Plaza: 50,000 square feet

Doubletree: 25,000 square feet

Embassy Suites: 7,231 square feet

Garden of the Gods Club: 13,070 square feet

Hilton Garden Inn, Airport: 2,400 square feet

Hilton Garden Inn: 1,800 square feet

Holiday Inn Airport: 2,302 square feet

The Inn at Palmer Drive: 4,297 square feet

The Mining Exchange: 10,000 square feet

Radisson Hotel, Airport: 3,174 square feet

Rodeway Inn: 8,000 square feet

Satellite Hotel: 3,304 square feet

Sources: Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau