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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Latest zombie hotel pitch doesn't convince

The folks who are still pushing the screamingly bad convention center hotel idea in Portland have wheeled out their latest round of arguments. And of course, the local mainstream media dutifully parrots them to the public without contributing even a shred of critical thinking. Here's a look at the new version of the folderol:

"It was really the economy taking a nosedive," said Stephanie Soden, director of communications and strategic development for Metro. "It just made the project not financially feasible at that point."

Maybe in Stephanie Soden's mind. But the Portland Development Commission passed on the project in early 2007, well before the economy tanked. The problem is that Portland is a crummy town for conventions, particularly because of its notorious weather and the fact that air travel in and out of here is expensive and difficult. Nothing about either of those two factors has changed.

And has the economy really "recovered"? Maybe on paper, but in the convention business?

But now, with the recessionary tide beginning to recede, the hotel industry is beginning to emerge with its head above water. According to STR Global, a research and analytics company that follows the hospitality business, U.S. hotels reported increases in occupancy, room rates and revenues at the end of the first quarter of 2012.

Maybe. But how much of an increase? 0.00001%? And specifically, how is convention traffic doing, compared to 2008?

Last year, Travel Portland saw 30 large convention groups – representing a total of 104,259 room nights and an estimated $35 million in community spending – go elsewhere because the city lacked a headquarters hotel.

This is the biggest whopper of them all. Yes, they went elsewhere, but how does anyone in Portland really know why? Is that what they told us when we asked them the reason? Is that kind of response really a reliable gauge of what these groups would do if we had the infernal hotel?

We learned in high school that when you're turned down for a date and you ask why, the girls don't always give an honest answer.

The convention center is a white elephant. Maybe it was o.k. for Bud Clark to build it, but it was Vera Katz's dumbest moment (and that's saying a lot) when she ordered it expanded despite a clear public vote to the contrary. The resulting caverns will always be half-empty or worse. A big hotel with a fat taxpayer subsidy is only going to compound the mistake.

Comments (20)

The convention center is also on the wrong side of the river in terms of its proximity to the fun stuff in Portland, i.e. bars and restaurants and things people like to do after the convention business is done for the day. Are people going to come to Portland from, say, Omaha and look forward to a thrilling night at the Lloyd Center?

There's quite a lot of theater over there these days.

I'm disappointed, where is the "It's for the children" line??? Either they are saving it for later, or they are slipping.

I'd also like to see how big those "large convention groups" really were. I'll bet that 90 percent of these calls were along the lines of "Oh, I wish we could have a convention, so I'm checking to see if there's any way we can afford it."

When I lived in Portland, I was unfortunately involved with writing for a slew of science fiction magazines, and I had regular dealings with a lot of Portland's science fiction community. I was once cornered by a group that was trying to get a bid for hosting the World Science Fiction Convention, an annual event usually hosted in cities big enough to support the crowds, out at Seaside. They blew gaskets when I tried to point out that precious few attendees would be willing to come out for a WorldCon that was nearly 80 miles away from the nearest airport. They thought it was a spiffy idea, and nothing about logistics or the problems with out-of-state and out-of-country visitors trying to get to the event, would convince them otherwise. Sound familiar?

Q. If this is such a great economic opportunity, then why aren't the hotel chains in a bidding war over this?
A. Because there is NO viable economic opportunity!

Twice a year Portland hosts large tango festivals, in October and in February. For years people fended for themselves regarding accommodation, until it all just got too big. Finally this year the organizer had enough of managing all the logistics of fanning out the various get-togethers all over town on floors that were too small to accommodate the swelling tides and their pinwheeling legs. So in February the event was held at the Lloyd Doubletree, and a company was contracted to install temporary floating dance floors.

There were a few predictable complaints, some people really wanted to go back to having the event divided between the Norse Hall, the Mason's place downtown, etc. But in the end, the professionals and travelling afficionados had someplace to stay and quick access to a mall for last minute shopping, bunion pads and such, and the increased space was great; there's nothing quite like the sight of the carpeted lobby strewn with languid bodies at 2AM, chatting and snacking during the break between the evening milonga and the late-night/dawnbreaking milonga.

So, long story short, we already HAVE a convention near the Lloyd center. Am I missing something?

1. The hotels in Portland aren't doing so well. I believe that PDC is still underwater on the Nines project. That loan hasn't been repaid because they can't keep the rooms full.

2. As mentioned above, if this idea was worthwhile, someone would have already built the darn thing. If Trump, or Hilton or someone else thought they could make money building a convention center hotel then they would have built it.

3. Sam (and his staff) don't have clue one when it comes to real business. They play SimCity all day long and they think that makes them experts. It doesn't.

Portland Native, shame on you. There's a great economic opportunity...for the developers, so long as they don't have to pay for it. The moment you expect for them to have to pay for their toys, though, suddenly they have no interest in playing.

A couple related items. First, how is using public funds to handicap (unfairly compete with) legitimately independent hotels in Portland a good idea? As part of "sustainability" what they should be doing (if anything at all) is creating a "virtual" hotel using the existing room-base. Add special high-frequency trimet shuttles during large conventions and you could market how "green" it all is. Secondly, another huge sustainability issue (which we are supposed to be super concerned about, right?) is the promotion of conventions in the first place, along with the associated air flight. Even ignoring all the reasons why conventions in Portland don't really make sense, they represent a huge non-"green" footprint and highly variable economic footprint.

Portland government doesn't really care about "green." It just likes to preach that when it's convenient.

The people who created Sim City definitely have a lot to answer for.

I would love to see a version that was actually evidence-based, instead of what it is, which is Monopoly with a wonkish veneer. The evidence-based version would never sell as a video game, of course, because it would show that the best thing municipal officials can do is all the totally boring stuff like keep the streets paved, the kids educated and the water publicly owned. That's no fun! Doesn't get you speaking gigs at international conferences, either. Fuggedabowdit.

When Portland goes into Chapter 9 and the associated 30 year storm of lawsuits begins, I wonder how good a case you could make against the sellers of Sim City for contributing to the delinquency of elected officials and their posses? Its like the bicycle people who've played Grand Theft Auto and think they know about driving.

Who is hustling the HQ hotel, IMO, is some hotel management company who knows they can con our ever-naive local officials into a long term contract which will guarantee them a profit no matter what, and with all the facilities costs and operating losses absorbed by the public. Watch it be just like the deal they gave Young Paulson, with the management company only required to cover minimum wage for all jobs and the public to pay the difference between minimum and prevailing.

The things that make a town a good convention destination, and the things that make it a good place to live are at odds. It is not coincidence that there is always a sterile tidal zone around these facilities that is empty and economically dead except when the wave of conventioneers flies in.

In this case, convenience is directly proportional to political opportunity.

"This is the biggest whopper of them all."

I wouldn't say the biggest, but trying to disprove a negative is a fool's errand and there probably aren't that many bigger fools than PDC to go down that path.

Convention center hotel = glut of hotel rooms = depressed room rates citywide = new low-income housing project occupying what was once called 'The Nines.'

The city government gang (and friends) could easily approve the construction of a convention hotel that's smaller than what they want to see, and which can be designed to allow expansion (following actual proof that it needs to be bigger) without having to shut the whole place down during the work. But they want one that's over-sized for starters, so it can be subsidized and then city-owned.

The whole convention center game is a scam. We approve one in the beginning, then learn that we are "losing" conventions to other cities that had enlarged their own con centers so we must approve an expansion "or lose money", and then it starts again.

Bob Tiernan
NE Portland

The whole convention center game is a scam. We approve one in the beginning, then learn that we are "losing" conventions to other cities that had enlarged their own con centers so we must approve an expansion "or lose money", and then it starts again.

But we didn't approve the expansion, and they built it anyway. Now we need a big hotel, and the convention cash is sure to roll in.

Come for the convention; stay for the gang warfare.

why don't we just build a skybridge to the lloyd doubletree and the mall , gotta save about 30 million doing that. Send my 10% commission check to Bojack , he and I will split it

It would be interesting to look at Tacoma Convention Center's statistics. I know there are at least two hotels adjacent to their Convention Center.

I would guess they have low occupancy rates when no convention is in town. And SEA has double the number of direct flights to large/middle sized cities in the Midwest and Northeast.

As is so often the case, Mister Tee has hit the nail on the head with his reference to flights:

I am a member of a large trade organization, which holds an annual convention with, on average, about 2000 attendees. Last fall, our directors came to Portland in order to do board business, but also to assess our town's viability as a convention destination. I attended these meetings, held in the only venue that could possibly host such a number of people, the Hilton adjacent to Pioneer Square. While the accommodations were indeed subpar (hotel management suggested using the unheated parking garage as an exhibition hall, which was not well-received), the deciding factor was lack of air transportation access to our little burg. 75% of the board members travelled here from the eastern seaboard, as would a sizeable number of convention attendees. Said board members were, to say the least, unimpressed with their travel connection options for getting here and returning home.

And no, I am not suggesting that city hall waste more money subsidizing non-stop airline connections, but rather that if we had a functional economy here, those connections would naturally be made. The convention in question will be in San Francisco, which, due primarily to the fact that it has an economy based on something other than government spending (although there is certainly plenty of that there, too), is known as a world-class city.


But we didn't approve the expansion


We approved the initial construction.

Bob T
NE Portland


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