A year later: Hilton West Palm Beach boon for county convention center

Convention and meeting bookings at the Palm Beach County Convention Center have surged in the year since the long-awaited Hilton West Palm Beach opened next door — a shift that has propped up the once-struggling event space and served as an economic boon for local businesses and restaurants.

In the years before the 400-room Hilton opened on Jan. 29, 2016, much of the convention center’s business consisted of consumer shows. Although those shows attracted large crowds, attendees normally only drove in for a single day. They didn’t typically stay at area hotels, shop at local stores, visit tourist attractions or eat at restaurants.

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But that changed after construction crews broke ground on the Hilton, said Dave Anderson, the conventioncenter’s general manager. The hotel led to a flurry of conventions and meeting bookings — events that bring visitors from all over the world to Palm Beach County for multiple-day trips.

“The impact from events like this are immeasurable,” Anderson said. “Not only are is the convention center seeing huge revenue increases, the hotels are seeing huge bookings. Then you have CityPlace and Clematis Street.”

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

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 conventioncenter 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.

GALLERY: See photos from the January 2016 opening

“The hotel was preventing us from getting to the next level,” Anderson said. “It was preventing us from making an economic impact on the community.”

KellyCavers, senior vice president of group sales for Discover The Palm Beaches, the county’s official tourism marketing arm, said conferences held at the convention center can also serve as a buoy for the tourism industry during economic downturns, since those events typically book meeting space years in advance.

“It can offset economic uncertainties,” Cavers said. “If you have a base of business that associations book, even when they economy turns down, particularly the medical conferences that we are targeting, they have to have the meeting. Doctors need to have continuing education credits.”

The 2015-16 budget year was a record-breaker for the convention center, which has operated at a loss since it opened more than a decade ago. The center recorded operating losses of $340,000, about $900,000 less than projected, Anderson said.

This year is off to another record-breaking start. In the first quarter, Anderson said the building broke even.

“This year is going to beat last year,” Anderson said. “Next year is shaping up to be the best year ever.”

The Hilton has also beat its projections.

As of Jan. 18, the hotel had hosted at least 48 groups — roughly one per week — in its own ballrooms and meeting space.

General Manager John Parkinson said group bookings in 2017 are expected to exceed last year’s total by 28 percent. Bookings in 2018 are up by 45 percent, he added.

“The hotel has been a great success story, and part of that is due to how West Palm Beach and the community have embraced the hotel,” Parkinson said. “The really great part about this is the vast majority of these (group bookings) are new business to West Palm Beach.”

Parkinson said the hotel is already booking events as far out as 2022.

During its first year, the hotel hosted more than 200,000 guests from over 48 countries. At the height of the tourist season, the Hilton employees roughly 300 people, Parkinson said.

Since the hotel’s opening, Visit Palm Beach, which offers kayak and paddle board rentals and cruises aboard it’s 50-foot catamaran Hakuna Matata from the West Palm Beach waterfront, has seen a spike in group business.

“It is all so convenient having the hotel right there and us on the water,” said Leigh Bennett, Visit Palm Beach’s Director of Marketing and Business Development.

Bennett said the catamaran cruises have become a popular activity for wedding parties and corporate groups staying at the Hilton.

“They can walk across the street and ride a trolley and get to the cruise,” Bennett said. “They don’t have to arrange for transportation.”

PalmBeach County commissioners chose Related Cos. to build the hotel in 2010. Two years later, the commission agreed to cover $27 million of the estimated $110 million hotel construction cost. Construction began on the Hilton in 2014, ending more than a decade of setbacks that prevented the building from rising in downtown WestPalmBeach.

Hundreds of county tourism leaders, elected officials and local residents attended the Hilton’s grand opening on Jan. 29, 2016.

Cavers said the hotel has helped create the “perfect package” for meeting planners looking for a convenient venue for their events.

The convention center and hotel are both located within a walking distance of CityPlace and Clematis Street. The are also just a short trip from the beach, the Intracoastal Waterway and Palm Beach International Airport.

All Aboard Florida’s Brightline, an express passenger rail service that will shuttle travelers between Miami and West Palm Beach beginning this summer, will also make it even easier for tourists to reach both the convention center and the hotel, Parkinson said. Eventually, Brightline plans to extend its service to Orlando.

“We are connecting ourselves to two of the No. 1 leisure destinations in the country,” Parkinson said. “I think it is a game changer.”

Meanwhile, Parkinson said the hotel plans to continue its push to appeal to locals as well as tourists, particularly during the slower summer months.

On Friday night, the hotel features live music from local artists. It also hosts a Saturday brunch near its outdoor pool.

“Our goal is to prove that this can be a great year round destination,” Parkinson said.

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