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Competing for conventions.

Meetings Account For As Much As 70 Percent Of The Profits For Some Arkansas Hotels

It is easy to recognize conventioneers.

Name tags adorn their lapels.

Their arms are loaded with pamphlets.

They scurry about the hotel lobby, glancing at their watches, careful not to miss the next scheduled seminar.

Small groups of conventioneers often can be spotted, maps in hand, seeking out local hot spots.

Most importantly for those in the hospitality industry, they spend money.

Last year, 250,000 convention delegates came to central Arkansas to participate in almost 600 conventions. The impact on Pulaski County's hotels, restaurants and entertainment facilities was $60 million.

According to the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau, the average convention delegate spends from $120 to $150 dollars per day.

Liz Tingquist, the bureau's director of sales, says the convention business is not only big, it's reasonably steady.

"Although you might see small dips, business meetings will continue to take place," Tingquist says. "There always will be a need for business people to stay in contact. It's just good business."

Many hotels depend on group events for a large percentage of their sales.

Downtown Little Rock's Excelsior Hotel, Arkansas' largest convention hotel with 130,000 SF of meeting space, relies on conventions and meetings for 70 percent of its revenues.

"All of the 1991 statistics showed that convention-oriented hotels were the most successful," says Linus Raines, the Excelsior's general manager. "At a time when the hospitality industry is in a slump, those hotels are prospering."

Raines says the Excelsior aggressively pursues convention business, tailoring each bid to the needs of the individual group.

Meeting planners typically consider location and size when choosing host hotels. A major selling point for the Excelsior is that it is located directly above the city's Statehouse Convention Center and a block from the Robinson Center.

Competing With Mickey

Raines says the Excelsior has been successful attracting conventions with special needs.

"The Americans with Disabilities Act has affected the industry immensely," she says.

The Excelsior meets ADA standards.

The hotel's largest 1992 convention will be the annual meeting of the National Association of County Agricultural Agents in August, an eight-day event with more than 3,000 delegates.

"This is not the typical business convention," Raines says. "The delegates bring their families and spend their vacations, either before or after the convention. I was particularly excited about winning this bid because we were competing against Orlando, Fla., and Mickey Mouse."

Large conventions benefit hotels across central Arkansas.

Although the Excelsior competes for some of the country's top conventions, Tingquist says 68 percent of central Arkansas gatherings are state-based meetings.

The Capital Hotel, located across Markham Street from the Excelsior, maintains close relationships with area corporations. The Capital's sales director, Carol Crane, says the hotel relies on small corporate meetings for 25 percent of its business.

"We average up to 200 meetings per year," Crane says.

The hotel's small size and intimate atmosphere attract corporate executives, she says.

North Little Rock's Riverfront Hilton Inn also focuses on small groups, according to general manager Charlie Jamison.

"We can't attract a national convention because we don't have the facilities," he says.

However, the hotel relies on Little Rock for overflow bookings from larger hotels.

Hotels near the Robinson Center and the Statehouse Convention Center are popular choices for meeting planners.

Meanwhile, hotels such as the Holiday Inn Airport-East and the Holiday Inn-West Holidome are working to improve their competitiveness.

Barry Travis, executive director of the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau, says renovations, expansions and additional employee training are drawing smaller conventions to the city's outskirts.

The Southern Touch

While some convention planners prefer an urban location such as Little Rock, smaller resort cities such as Hot Springs attract their fair share of events.

"The trend is for meetings to be held in Southern areas that are suitable for bringing families along," says Bill Boughton, director of sales for the Majestic Resort-Spa and the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa in Hot Springs. "... There's nothing more comforting that Southern hospitality."

Randy Wolfinbarger agrees. As general manager of the Best Western Inn of the Ozarks at Eureka Springs for the past decade, Wolfinbarger has seen that personal service will keep groups coming back.

"We have groups that have come to us for 15 years," he says. "Some associations are hesitant to meet in an out-of-the-way location like Eureka Springs. But we encourage site inspection. The atmosphere is our biggest selling point."

Northwest Arkansas' convention appeal is increasing, according to Lee Zachary, president of the Springdale Chamber of Commerce.

"For too long, it has been a Hot Springs and Little Rock deal," he says. "|Northwest Arkansas~ couldn't handle sizable conventions -- until now."

In 1989, the Holiday Inn-Springdale was opened. The hotel, which boasts an 11,000-SF convention center that can handle 1,300 people, recently hosted the 18th annual Arkansas Governor's Conference on Tourism.

Zachary says a $2 million project to build an additional 30,000-SF exhibit hall is in the works.

If the proposed regional airport becomes a reality, Zachary says it would "put us on the aerial map" as far as attracting national conventions is concerned.

What does the increased aggressiveness of northwest Arkansas mean for central Arkansas?

Travis says competition among cities and hotels is inevitable.

"As more facilities develop within the state, the meeting planner is going to have a wider selection of sites," he says.

Still, Travis stresses the importance of marketing the state as a whole.

"Selling is selling," he says. "We all have a product that will benefit Arkansas. Concentrating on bringing in business from outside the state is our greatest challenge."
COPYRIGHT 1992 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Selling Arkansas, part 1; Arkansas' hotels and motels
Author:Harper, Kim
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:Industry Overview
Date:Apr 13, 1992
Previous Article:Her honor.
Next Article:Traveling Arkansas.

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