Industries Hotels/Tourism

Moving into the big leagues?

Hampton Roads ups its convention game

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Print this page by M.J. McAteer
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Kurt Krause says The Main is drawing group meetings that
are new to Hampton Roads. Photo by Mark Rhodes

What do Dollar Tree, Ferguson Enterprises and The World Congress on Electroporation have in common?  

They’re all meeting this year at The Main, Virginia’s newest luxury hotel and conference center. The $175 million, Hilton-branded property in downtown Norfolk opened April 3, and industry officials say it will help Virginia recruit larger conventions and new customers.

The 22-story, 300-room property offers the largest ballroom in Virginia at 18,500 square feet, more than 70,000 square feet of flexible function space and the latest in technology — amenities that will help Virginia compete for convention business with the likes of New York City, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

“The Main is very fresh, youthful — not at all a standard,” says Jeff Schmid, president of the Virginia chapter of Meeting Professionals International. “It’s not just about square feet of space. It’s about what kind of space.”

“The Main is one of the best examples I have ever seen of a true convention hotel,” echoes Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association. “This is a game-changer for us in the state.”  

New properties increase capacity and generate buzz, but they’re not the only reason meeting planners will consider an area they might have previously passed over. As meeting times gradually have been pared back — many to just one or two days — planners’ priorities include ease of access as well as leading edge technology. Hampton Roads is positioning itself to deliver all three.   

Although still in its early days, The Main is attracting attention. “At least half my clients have already booked there,” says Rick Eisenman, president and CEO of Eisenman & Associates Inc., an association management and meetings consulting company in Richmond. “That’s pretty amazing,” he explains, considering that they made their commitment before the hotel had even opened.

A sampling of businesses and organizations already booked includes Dollar Tree, a national discount retailer; Ferguson Enterprises, the country’s  largest distributor of residential and commercial plumbing supplies; and the aforementioned World Congress on Electroporation and Pulsed Electric Fields in Biology, Medicine and Food & Environmental Technologies, the tongue-twisting name for a group that will bring in 300 to 500 participants in September.

The Medical Society of Virginia and a contingent of the National Association of Black Accountants arrive in October. The Transportation Lawyers Association is booked for November, and the International Society for BioProcess Technology for December.  The Association of Individual Hospitality Professionals, which met at The Queen Mary in Long Beach, Calif., this year, has booked The Main for its 2018 summit.

Kurt J. Krause, the managing director of the 500,000-square-foot complex located a block off Norfolk’s waterfront, says that 80 percent of these groups have never met in the area or haven’t visited Hampton Roads in at least five years.

Not surprisingly, Krause shares in the widespread excitement about the new facility. He has been in the hospitality business all his life. His father was a meeting planner, and his grandparents ran a hotel.

Still, he has never worked in a property as grand as The Main. It has three high-end restaurants, a dramatic glass atrium and “technology that any university would envy,” says Krause.

The Exchange, the 50,000-square-foot, city-owned conference center, is equipped with a 90-seat tiered meeting room and the latest in tech support. It enjoys an elite IACC (International Association of Conference Centres) certification held by a minority of venues. The certification tells meeting planners that the property conforms to a set of quality standards in meeting room design and food and beverage service.

The Main itself can handle as many as 1,000 meeting-goers. Yet, by collaborating with other venues, it, and the Hampton Roads region as a whole, is gunning for not only more conventions but larger ones. In August, for example, the Southern Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (SASHTO), which brought about 1,000 members to the Greenbrier in West Virginia in 2016, will occupy both The Main and the adjacent Norfolk Waterside Marriott.

Although capacity is crucial, Virginia tourist officials say it alone cannot move Virginia into the big leagues in terms of conventions. Conference destinations need to be readily accessible. Hampton Roads is within a day’s drive of two-thirds of all Americans, but it is known for congestion around its water crossing tunnels.

Interstate 64 in Newport News is in the midst of a road-widening project, and the area’s Midtown Tunnel recently added a new tube. The state also working to secure federal permits required to expand the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.  Norfolk’s international airport offers nearly 200 flights a day. However, as many local officials will point out, the airport needs more direct flights to reduce travel time.

The region’s venues also compare favorably on costs with other East Coast meeting sites.  “The price is there,” says Eisenman.  While a midweek night at The Main or the Marriott across the street might run $165 or $175, a stay in a comparable hotel in New York City might be more than $450, he says. A $60 gallon of coffee in Virginia might cost $200 in the Big Apple, while a deli lunch of about $30 could run $120.

Hampton Roads’ cultural and recreational opportunities are still another marketing point. SASHTO, for example, will take advantage of both by holding its CEO dinner at Norfolk’s Chrysler Museum of Art and its golf tournament at the Bay Creek Resort & Club in Cape Charles.

These resources have helped put the region’s convention industry on the upswing. Todd Bertka, vice president for convention sales and marketing for the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors  Bureau, says that in FY 2015-2016, convention traffic generated $54 million in attendee spending and $9.7 million in direct and indirect revenue for his city. He is optimistic about posting even fatter figures in the future.

For example, when the venerable Cavalier Hotel in Virginia Beach reopens after a $75 million restoration, the venue will contribute 35,000 square feet of function space to the resort city’s meeting capacity. In addition, it will offer a one-of-a-kind, five-star destination that can provide the local color that has become so important to convention-goers.

The ability to offer the most advanced connectivity also will be critical to the region’s quest to play a bigger role on the national stage. Virginia Beach was recently named among the nation’s top 20 cities for meetings, according to financial technology company Smart­Asset. In surveying 102 of the largest U.S. cities, SmartAsset looked at such factors as availability of hotels, room rates and proximity to major airports. It noted that more than 7,000 hotel rooms are within three miles of the Virginia Beach Convention Center, located close to the city’s oceanfront area.

The center’s already high-tech IQ is expected to get even better. Microsoft and Facebook, in partnership with Telefónica of Spain, have picked Virginia Beach as their first destination for a transatlantic, fiber-optic cable that should provide the convention center with lightning-fast Internet service, possibly by year’s end.

Elsewhere in the region, Colonial Williamsburg also is making improvements. This winter, it made extensive renovations to the Williamsburg Inn and the Williamsburg Lodge, the latter of which will be rebranded as part of Marriott’s Autograph collection, a portfolio of boutique hotels.  

The lodge, says Shaun Coleman, executive director of sales and marketing in the hospitality division of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, has been updated with nods to modernity that include better Wi-Fi, a meeting concierge and guest rooms with plentiful plugs, since the average visitor has 2.4 electronic devices.

To provide local flavor, Williamsburg can offer meeting-goers fife-and-drum escorts to dinner and speakers who appear as historical characters, such as Thomas Jefferson lecturing about early American banking practices to a meeting of financiers.

History, though, doesn’t appear to be as big of a draw as it once was. Earlier this year, Colonial Williamsburg laid off about 40 employees to cut costs, with officials noting that historic sites around the country have experienced declined visitation in recent years.

Caroline Logan, director of communications for the Virginia Tourism Corp., expects the lodge and other new and improved venues to make Virginia a popular tourism destination. She cites the diverse product that the commonwealth can offer travelers, from the vibrant vibe of downtown Richmond to the natural splendors of rural St. Paul. “Business is booming,” Logan says. “This looks like another record-breaking year.”


Conference hotels

  Hotel Location Phone Website Meeting rooms Banquet capacity Guest rooms Meeting space1
1 The National Conference Center Lansdowne (703) 729-8000 250 1,150 917 265,000
2 The Omni Homestead Hot Springs (888) 796-5838 26 1,000 483 72,000
3 Norfolk Waterside Marriott Norfolk (757) 627-4200 26 1,400 405 68,000
4 The Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center, Curio Collection by Hilton Roanoke (540) 985-5900 36 1,200 331 63,000
5 Hilton Alexandria Mark Center Alexandria (703) 845-1010 33 960 496 55,000
6 Lansdowne Resort Leesburg (703) 729-8400 37 720 296 55,000
7 Hyatt Regency Crystal City at Reagan National Airport Arlington (703) 418-1234 26 1,060 686 53,000
8 DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Williamsburg Williamsburg (757) 220-2500 41 1,000 295 48,000
9 Sheraton Norfolk Waterside Hotel Norfolk (757) 622-6664 16 1,200 468 46,000
10 Sheraton Tysons Hotel Vienna (703) 448-1234 27 1,240 449 45,000
11 Williamsburg Lodge, Autograph Collection Williamsburg (800) 822-9127 28 1,000 323 45,000
12 Hilton Norfolk The Main Norfolk (757) 763-6200 39 1,200 300 42,000
13 Wintergreen Resort Wintergreen (800) 273-3390 18 500 230 40,000
14 Crystal Gateway Marriott Arlington (703) 920-3230 28 1,300 697 38,000
15 Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Washington D.C. - Crystal City Arlington (703) 416-4100 25 600 627 34,000
16 Westfields Marriott Washington Dulles Chantilly (703) 818-0300 20 550 336 33,000
17 Hyatt Regency Reston Reston (703) 709-1234 35 950 518 32,000
18 The Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner McLean (703) 506-4300 13 1,120 398 31,000
19 Wyndham Virginia Crossings Hotel and Conference Center Glen Allen (804) 727-1400 26 300 183 28,000
20 Hilton McLean Tysons Corner McLean (703) 847-5000 16 920 458 27,000
21 Richmond Marriott Richmond (804) 643-3400 40 1,120 410 26,000
22 Fort Magruder Hotel and Conference Center Williamsburg (757) 220-2250 18 500 303 26,000
23 Doubletree by Hilton Richmond - Midlothian Richmond (804) 379-3800 20 700 237 26,000
24 The Jefferson Richmond (804) 788-8000 19 420 181 26,000
25 Sheraton Pentagon City Hotel Arlington (703) 521-1900 21 650 416 25,000
26 The Founders Inn & Spa Virginia Beach (757) 366-5716 20 1,000 240 25,000
27 Renaissance Portsmouth-Norfolk Waterfront Hotel Portsmouth (757) 673-3000 23 875 249 24,000
28 The Inn at Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center Blacksburg (877) 200-3360 11 700 147 23,705
29 Hilton Richmond Hotel & Spa/Short Pump Richmond (804) 364-3600 11 795 254 23,000
30 Holiday Inn Virginia Beach Norfolk Hotel & Conference Center Virginia Beach (757) 499-4400 16 450 307 22,000
31 Sheraton Reston Hotel Reston (703) 620-9000 19 400 298 22,000
32 Boar's Head Charlottesville (434) 972-2224 19 450 175 22,000
33 Newport News Marriott at City Center Newport News (757) 873-9299 23 840 256 20,659

1 In square feet                                 Source: Individual hotels

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