Industries Hotels/Tourism

Ready, set, learn

The National Conference Center in Leesburg returns to its training mission

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Print this page by Paula C. Squires
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Geoff Lawson is The National Conference Center’s general manager.
Photo by Stephen Gosling

In 2014, when new owners took over the sprawling 65-acre National Conference Center in Leesburg, the occupancy rate was down to about 18 percent. By 2016, that figure had jumped to 50 percent.
Occupancy remained at that rate during 2017, and things are looking up for 2018, too. So far, officials say the center has booked four times as many events compared to the same time the year before.

In October, the property also took home two top awards from the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association: Hotel of the Year and Hotelier of the Year (for Geoff Lawson, the conference center’s general manager).

What behind’s the dramatic turnaround? “We had to reset the building to what we believe it should be, a facility for adult learning and education,” says Lawson.

The National got its start in 1974 as the Xerox International Center for Training and Management Development. For 26 years, Xerox trained employees at the 1 million-square-foot plus campus. In 1994, Xerox opened the facility to other corporations for training meetings, before selling the property in 2000 to Chicago-based Oxford Capital. 

Coming full circle
After the sale,  the National largely catered to government agencies and federal contractors because of its location within 35 miles of Washington, D.C. That market, however, soon tanked from the combined effects of the 2007-09 recession, federal budget cuts and a government shutdown in 2013.

Then the property — with 917 guest rooms, more than 265,000 square feet of meeting space and the largest ballroom in Northern Virginia — tried to be a hotel in the narrow sense of the word, with people coming for overnight accommodations.

“The property was getting beat up on Trip Advisor,” and other online travel sites, recalls Chuck Ocheltree, the National’s chief marketing office.  With aging amenities and a campus-like design, it couldn’t compete with the sleek modern hotels of metropolitan Washington, D.C. 

After the property’s sale in 2014, new owner NCC PS Enterprises, in a joint venture with PCCP LLC and Stoneleigh Capital, invested $12 million in renovations, which positioned the National to come full circle with a return to its conference/training mission. 

Today, 90 percent of the property’s business comes from meetings, conferences and training events, with the other 10 percent from social occasions such as weddings and proms, says Lawson. 

With an updated Black Olive Bar and Grill, a spruced-up lobby with a living room feel and an outdoor area with fire pits and furniture, there are plenty of places for people to hang out after a long day of training.

Customers include corporations such as BAE, the World Bank, IBM, accounting firms like KPMG, and telecommunications and insurance companies. “We are perfect for that environment, because they have annual new employee training and many of them are industries that require some type of accreditation,” Lawson explains.
Military groups and government agencies also continue to be customers, with some training groups staying for as long as 90 days. 

New emphasis on food
With such lengthy stays, the food has to be good, says Lawson. The National has put a new emphasis on food, with menus that offer local wines and farm-to-table dishes.

“They’re eating our meals three times a day, so you have to have quality and variety. You can’t have them come in and say, ‘It’s Monday, so it has be pasta,’” says Lawson.  The National’s spruced-up dining areas and food cases with choices of entrees and fresh fruit and vegetables are a far cry from the cafeteria-style fare of the past. 

The rate for a complete meeting package, including lodging, food, coffee breaks and meeting space, is about $260 per person per day — “less than a hotel night in D.C.,”  notes Lawson.

Another key focus is creating local partnerships in Loudoun County. One example is a partnership with the adjacent Riverside High School. The National works with students interested in culinary careers, by hiring them for internships, summer jobs and post-graduation jobs.

Lawson adds that the property’s senior management team is active in the community and wants to build relationships. When Riverside opened in 2015, the school planned to serve peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches at its opening reception. “We sent over high-end canapés and hors d’oeuvres,” he says.

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