With new Hilton’s opening, convention center sees surge in bookings

Event bookings at the once fledgling Palm Beach County Convention Center have catapulted to record-breaking levels since the long-awaited Hilton West Palm Beach opened next to the meeting space earlier this year.

Before the 400-room hotel opened, the convention center received roughly 20 leads a year from associations and meeting planners looking for a place to hold their events, said Dave Anderson, the convention center’s general manager. Since the Hilton opened its doors in January, the convention center’s sales team has been fielding as many as five proposals a week from out-of-town groups looking for meeting space, he said.

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Convention center officials expect to see their most lucrative September in the building’s 13-year history thanks to a surge of last minute business, Anderson added.

Meanwhile, the building’s sales team, which includes convention center staffers and officials with Discover The Palm Beaches, the county’s official tourism marketing organization, has received a steady stream of proposals from groups looking to book meeting space as many as five years in advance of their event.

“That doesn’t guarantee the business,” Anderson said. “But just the fact that we are getting that many qualified looks is huge. They aren’t just kicking the tires.We are making the short list almost from the onset. It puts us in a great position.”

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The team has already convinced 30 groups to hold their events here during the 2016-17 budget year, which begins Oct. 1. Those events are expected to bring thousands of tourists to the area, resulting in 25,000 nightly bookings at local hotels.

By comparison, 32 events were held at the convention center during the 2014-15 budget year, generating roughly 16,500 nightly hotel bookings.

“The goal the county gave when they initially built the building was to drive convention and conference business,” Anderson said. “We have had successes over the years, but the successes we are seeing now far outweigh what we have seen in the past.”

The convention center opened in 2003 but struggled without a connected hotel to house conference attendees.

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Event planners, especially those organizing large national conferences, look for meeting space that also offers convenient lodging for their guests. That’s because it can be difficult and costly to transport hundreds of meeting goers from off-site hotels, local tourism officials said.

Before the Hilton opened, the convention center was limited to competing for events that would generate a maximum of about 450 nightly hotel bookings, officials have said.

But when Hilton’s 400 rooms are combined with those at other nearby hotels, including the West Palm Beach Marriott, the Hyatt Place and the Residence Inn in downtown West Palm Beach, the convention center’s sales team can vie for much larger events.

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“The extra 400 rooms, it really makes a huge difference,” said Glenn Jergensen, executive director of the Palm Beach County Tourist Development Council. “When you start looking at groups you can attract, it really sets the stage for larger meetings and conventions.”

The convention center has already seen a jump in the size of the groups looking to come here, Anderson said.

During the 2017-18 budget year, the convention center is set to hold 10 events, generating 17,238 nightly bookings at local hotels. That’s an average of 1,700 nightly bookings for each event.

The convention center staff has booked six events for the 2018-19 budget year. Those events are expected to generate an average of 2,200 nightly bookings, documents show.

Jorge Pesquera, Discover’s president and CEO, also credits the convention center’s sales team for the growth.

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Discover recently hired several new employees to help market the area as a destination for meetings and conventions. Those employees came from other large destination marketing organizations across the country, bringing with them a number of contacts and business leads, Pesquera said.

The team “understands the nuances of negotiations with the client,” Pesquera said.

That experience has made “huge difference in terms of the flow of leads and bookings,” Pesquera added.

Also driving business: An incentive program that offers to reimburse convention, trade show and meeting planners for certain expenses, if they agree to hold their event here.

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In 2014, the county set aside $200,000 for incentives to help attract business while construction was underway on the adjacent hotel. In January, the county pledged another $300,000 to help with the effort.

In all, $400,000 in incentives has been pledged to conventions and meeting groups. Tourism officials say the pledges are expected to result in roughly 60,000 nightly bookings at area hotels, while generating $4.3 million in revenue for the convention center, county documents show.

“We aren’t giving any money out front,” Jergensen said. “They don’t get a check until they come and they have had the event here.”

The meetings and conventions market is cutthroat. To win business, most convention centers across the country offer similar incentives and rebates.

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In Palm Beach County, roughly 60 percent of bids received by the convention center include a request for incentive money, tourism officials have said.

Anderson said the incentive money, the new Hilton hotel, and the convention center’s proximity to the airport, downtown businesses and beaches, has helped set the county apart from other meeting destinations.

“In some places, there is nothing immediately around the convention center,” Anderson said. “If you look at what we have with the convention center, CityPlace, the hotels, Clematis Street, and the Intracoastal, there are really very few places in America that have this set up.”

Anderson said the convention center is working closely with businesses in downtown West Palm Beach to raise awareness about the spending power that out-of-town visitors bring to the community.

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“Our goal is we really want to educate the community on how they can benefit from these groups coming in,” Anderson said.

Anderson points to high school graduations in the county, which until 2011 were held at the convention center. The school board voted in June 2011 to move the annual ceremonies to the South Florida Fairgrounds.

While the graduations were taking place at the fairgrounds last month, the convention center hosted more than 3,000 out-of-town guests who were here to attend two separate events.

“From these two conventions with 3,000 people we made more money than with 100,000 people for the graduations,” Anderson said. “That is just me. Every night I’m watching these people go across the street to CityPlace. The impact is dramatic.”

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