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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Feb. 14, 200712:00 PM EST

New faces staying in hotels for conventions this summer

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by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

by Max Marbut

Staff Writer

Ask anyone in the hospitality or convention services business and they’ll tell you 2007 is going to be a banner year. Some predict a record-breaking year in terms of bringing large groups here, especially those groups making their first trip to Jacksonville.

The Swaminarayan will be held Downtown the first two weeks of July. The socio-spiritual Hindu organization is bringing people from all over the nation and the world to Downtown hotels in three groups of 3,000 per group.

The Jacksonville & the Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates the gathering represents 7,600 room nights and an economic impact of approximately $3.9 million.

“We have this conference once every three or four years depending on when our spiritual leader can come to the United States,” said Sonny Bhikha, the local coordinator for the event and a CVB board member.

“He is like the pope if we were Catholics. He is coming to Jacksonville for 10 days to instill our Hindu culture to our children who are living in the United States. His mission and his message is to not forget your Hindu culture.”

The Hyatt Regency Riverfront is the host hotel for Swaminarayan, but the magnitude of the event means all the Downtown hotels will book business from the group.

The Omni specializes in smaller corporate groups, but when a mega-convention is ready to check in, the hotel is happy to provide rooms to handle the overflow.

“Our perfect fit during the week is 125 rooms. On the weekends, we like to book as many as 250 group rooms,” said Wendy Priesand, the Omni’s director of sales and marketing.

She said the Omni predicts 2007 is going to be a good year in terms of group bookings. Some of the reasons behind the business include increased awareness of the city because of the 2005 Super Bowl, the Hyatt brand’s presence Downtown and improved service at Jacksonville International Airport (JIA).

“Air service has really improved in the last few years at JIA”, said Priesand. “Carriers who fly into JIA are using larger planes and there are more flights now than ever before.”

Priesand also said one of the key factors that has increased the convention business is an aggressive marketing effort.

T.J. Jackson, the CVB’s southeast sales manager for religious and fraternal organizations, said Jacksonville is perfectly positioned for groups like the Swaminarayan to bring their largest gatherings here.

“A lot of religious groups really like our Downtown,” she said. “They don’t want a big strip of nightclubs, but the Landing is great. They will even program bands and entertainment that is appropriate for a particular group.”

Jackson said religious and fraternal groups can take longer to book, sometimes as long as a year, but there are enough of the groups that a trade show is dedicated to helping the groups find the best location for their national meetings.

Jackson recently attended a meeting of the Religious Conference Management Association. She said it is one of the most important shows of the year because the CVB considers the multicultural and fraternal organization market second only to sports when it comes to bringing visitors to town.

She added she is sure this year’s trade show was a major success for Jacksonville.

“We got 17 requests for proposals. I can probably set up my entire year from just this one show,” said Jackson.

Another big group that will be convening at the Hyatt this summer is the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks of the World.

Jennifer MacPhee, former director of communications at the CVB, described the African-American Elks Club’s national convention as “one of the largest conventions in Jacksonville history.”

The meeting is expected to bring more than 10,000 Elks to town for 12 days. They are working with the CVB to bus conventioneers from the Hyatt, the host hotel, to the convention center and back every day. With a group that large, Jackson said the Elks have booked blocks of rooms in every Downtown hotel.

“They are a monster – a huge megagroup,” she said, then added the Elks coming to town also gave her the opportunity to learn how to organize a parade. The Elks are planning one as big as the annual Gator Bowl Parade that will close streets one day while they are here.

According to the CVB, 2007 is going to be a very good year for conventions. As of the first week of February, 150 groups are scheduled to arrive this year, resulting in a total of 95,713 room nights and a combined economic impact of more than $48 million. Ninety five of the groups are coming to Jacksonville for the first time. The newcomers represent an estimated economic impact of more than $30 million.

Jackson said at any given time, she is pursuing about 80 groups to sell them on what Jacksonville has to offer their organizations.

“When Jacksonville makes a group’s short list, we bring them to town for a site visit and show them around for three or four days,” said Jackson.

She said she recalls one time in particular when representatives from a very large group looking for a city to host a national convention came to town to inspect the facilities and other amenities the area has to offer.

“We were competing against Tampa, which has three hotels next door to the convention center,” said Jackson. “We brought the people to town and got them invited to throw out the first pitch at a Suns baseball game. We had a big reception for them in the boardroom at our office and hired a plane to carry a banner past the window that said we wanted them to come to Jacksonville.”

Priesand also said “conventions are a huge part of Jacksonville’s economy.”

The economic impact goes beyond the hotel rooms.

Steve Anderson, director of marketing at The Twisted Martini, said the club books a lot of business from groups that are staying within a short walk to the Landing.

“Our convention business is booming,” he said. “We’re finding that a lot of companies that hold their conventions here aren’t looking just for traditional sit-down events. They want something more casual, like a mixer.”

Priesand agreed that having entertainment and restaurant venues within walking distance of where people are holding their meetings improves the value of the service the hotel offers.

“Being Downtown is such an advantage. It offers tremendous value for conventions and corporate meetings,” she said. “We’re finding that groups will have their opening reception and their closing banquet here at the hotel, but in between they can find lots of other places to experience. A lot of groups also take tours to St. Augustine or Amelia Island while they are here.”

Anderson also said that as a member of the CVB, The Twisted Martini has the opportunity to market the club to groups coming to Jacksonville months in advance and it’s paying off for the venue’s bottom line.

“Already this month, we’ve had two private parties for groups of 250 people and we’ve booked a party for a group having a meeting here later this month on a Monday night – and we’re usually closed that night,” he said.

Gary Gotling, director of sales and marketing at the Hyatt, wasn’t surprised that other hospitality industry professionals mentioned the hotel when asked why the convention business is booming.

“It’s the brand the customers are buying. Hyatt brings consistency wherever we’re in a market,” he said.

Gotling agreed it looks like the next six months will help 2007 go into the books as one of the best years ever for conventions and group travel.

“Summer looks very promising. We’re booked the entire month of July and we’ll be hosting several government and corporate groups in August. Everything looks great through Labor Day.”

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