story by Jamie Smith
Early 2013 is going to be a boomtown of sorts for the convention and event industry in Bentonville as two new hotels are expected to open with significant meeting space.
One hotel will be somewhat familiar to long-time Bentonville residents as it’s in the same location as the old Clarion Hotel and Convention Center on Walton Boulevard. The hotel closed last year and was purchased by Reimagine Hospitality, said Kunal Mody, CEO and president. The company was formed by Mody and his partners.
Most people in the community believe that it will reopen as a Sheraton Four Points, but Mody said that has not been finalized yet.
“We’re still shopping the brand,” he said recently. “Nothing has been signed or finalized.”
He and his partners are doing a cost-benefit analysis of various brands, he said. There is also the potential that they will expand the meeting space inside the hotel to accommodate more people.
“That is what we want to do, but we haven’t finalized the plans,” Mody said.
The idea is to turn some of the open atrium space into enclosed meeting rooms but the new owners want to make sure it will be a wise investment.
“We want to make sure it has the right feel to it,” he said. “We don’t want to build a box inside of a box and make it look out of place. That turns off guests.”
The old Boston’s Restaurant and Sports Bar will be converted to an Italian restaurant, Mody said. Construction should start soon and is expected to take 60 to 90 days to finish.
Amy Jones, owner of Dream Makers Events, said her company is expected to be the event and catering coordinator for the new hotel. She said that the increased space will help solve several problems including guests of the hotel interrupting parties, the parties being too noisy for hotel guests, and of course the need for more meeting space. Providing more opportunities for Bentonville-based events to stay in Bentonville instead of having to go to convention hotels nearby will keep tax dollars local, she said.
Kalene Griffith, president/CEO of the Bentonville Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, is pleased about the approaching prospects for Bentonville to have more convention space.
“The closing of the Clarion had an impact on our ability to recruit midsize meetings,” she said. “The opening of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has increased our hotel collections by the 17% over the past year. … The new hotel will be the largest meeting space in Bentonville at approximately 26,000 square feet. It is an asset for our city to be able to host the midsize meeting between 700 to 1,000 guests.”
Crystal Bridges opening can be thanked for the second new hotel opening with more than 12,000 square feet of meeting and event space. 21c Museum Hotel is under construction at the northeast corner of the Bentonville Square. These two hotels will join the DoubleTree Suites on Walton Boulevard, which has about 8,000 square feet of meeting space, Griffith said.
In a region that already has many hotels, some that suffered in the bad economy because there was such an abundance of limited service (hotels without convention space), some might be wondering if Bentonville gets enough meeting and convention business to warrant three hotels that offer the amenity. Griffith says yes.
“The positive impact and awareness that Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has had on our community and region, continues to bring awareness from corporate, organizations, businesses and associations to host their meeting in our city,” she said. “The Bentonville CVB team will promote and prospect for new business with all three properties. We collaborate with all of our properties to bring in new and retain business.”
Having convention space was highly beneficial during the economic downturn, many existing local hotels agree. There are five John Q. Hammons Hotels and Resorts in Arkansas, including the Embassy Suites Northwest Arkansas-Hotel, Spa and Convention Center in Rogers, and the Holiday Inn and Convention Center in Springdale.
Rogers Davis is the general manager at the Holiday Inn. He said that the Hammons hotels consider it important to build “significant” meeting space.
“The group market drives a lot of business in the area,” he said.
Davis said that during the pre-recession building spree, many hotels cropped up with limited service, i.e. no convention or meeting space. Those hotels suffered more in the economic downturn than those with meeting space.
“There was an over-saturation during the building spree. That is remarkable for this market that has 895,000 annualized room rooms in 2007-2009,” he said. “The market was booming and all business was doing really well. People thought ‘we should get into the hotel business.’ Then the economy tanked and combined with the loss of business from the recession, the over-saturation compounded the problems.
“Those with convention space were able to overcome that and stay in business.”
Hotels with convention space also draw in other businesses that want to be close to places with both local and visitor traffic.
“When Mr. Hammons built (the Embassy Suites) there was nothing around it,” he said. “It’s amazing how much is around it now.”
The biggest business-makers for the convention hotel industry is the SMERF – sports-market, military, entertainment, religious and fraternal groups.
“That kind of business generates a lot of business for Northwest Arkansas,” he said.
At the new Chancellor Hotel in Fayetteville, there is an air of excitement as the old Cosmopolitan Hotel was rebranded and reopened as the new Chancellor. It opened last month with 14,000 square feet of meeting space. It is also attached to the University of Arkansas Global Campus, which increases the available meeting space for event planners.
“Convention space allows you to attract those conventions or whatever they may be and be a kind of one-stop shop,” said General Manager Alex Jerde.
Jerde said that when large conventions come in, especially those from out of town, it makes more sense for them to find a location that offers their attendees a place to stay and to attend the conference. Otherwise, they are required to commute from their lodging to the meeting.
Part of the renovation was to add 200 rooms, which also makes the Chancellor a more viable convention space. Both that hotel and nearby meeting spaces like the Fayetteville Town Center can now attract more and larger conventions, he said.