Updated March 29 at 12:28am

State riding meetings, convention momentum


These days it’s not unusual to find a corporate sales force gathered in a meeting room at Newport’s International Tennis Hall of Fame. They’ll listen to a pep talk about upcoming goals, and then blow off some steam hitting balls on the museum’s courts.

This year it will happen about 20 times, a sign that at least one part of Rhode Island’s economy -- the convention and corporate-meetings business – has made it past the recession.

“We had a big slump in 2009,” said Charles Kehres, the museum’s director of events. “But for the past two years we’ve been coming back. There’s been a real upswing. Companies are doing outside events again.”

It’s the same story all over the state. While the rest of the Ocean State’s economy is still sluggish, meetings and conventions are taking off.

“We’re very optimistic about the year ahead,” said Kristin McGrath, vice president of sales and services at the Providence-Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau. “In 2012 we did a total of 23 citywide groups – that means more than 450 hotel rooms were booked on the peak night of their convention. We currently have 26 on the books for 2013, and we still have nine months left to this year.”

What’s more, she says, last year’s numbers were up, too. Total room occupancy for Providence was 67.6 percent in 2012, almost 3 points higher than the rate of 2011.

In recent years the seaside town of Westerly has also picked up some of the business-meeting trade. Ocean House, a high-end, beach-side resort in the village of Watch Hill, makes a pitch for corporate customers in the off-season months. They’ve seen a rise there, too.

“Our first quarter has been a bit slower than last year, but that’s because of the weather,” said Michelle Wade, the hotel’s communications director. “For the remainder of the year we’re on pace to meet a goal we’ve set for ourselves – that’s 15 percent growth over last year. Just a few weeks ago, Forbes put us on their five-star list, and that will certainly help us get there.”

The recent rise in convention visitors is especially heartening, because many people tend to spend more freely when socializing out of town with business colleagues. They book hotel rooms, of course, but they also visit restaurants, shop in stores, go club-hopping, take in shows and drop some cash in casino slots.

At McCormick & Schmick’s, a popular restaurant just across the street from the R.I. Convention Center, conventioneers now account for 25 percent of the revenue, according to manager Ed Hannon.

“Business has absolutely gone up this past year,” he said. “We’re getting more reservations and larger parties. Any time they’re in town, the Biltmore fills up and so do we. And they definitely enjoy their libations. It’s more revenue for the restaurant, and more tips and more hours for our staff.

“I think you’ll find the stores and restaurants in the city have been pleased with the convention traffic,” said Tim Muldoon, general manager at the Convention Center. “They had a good year, too. Our next fiscal year – it starts July 1 – appears to be really shaping up, too.”

Last year’s big events at the convention center included the National Strength and Conditioning Association and the International Association of Food Protection agencies, which both drew thousands of visitors to Providence in July.

Among the big events the facility will host this summer: conventions for the Council of Engineering and Scientific Society Executives and Bruhan Marashtra Mandal of North America, an Indian-American cultural organization, which could draw up to 4,000 delegates. “Both these markets could lead to more events, if they have a good experience,” Muldoon said.

Providence has seen particularly strong growth in one area of the convention business, medical and health associations. There have been six such gatherings over the past two years. Muldoon gives a nod to Brown University for that boost. “They’ve been real ambassadors for us,” he said.

There will also be a number of smaller gatherings, including a regional conference for Mary Kay salespeople, and a convention and trade show for the American Wind Energy Association. “We also have some repeat trade shows,” Muldoon said. “The New England Turf Grass Association – they’re golf-course superintendents and other outside maintenance people – they’ve been with us 16 years. And the Journal of Light Construction has had a trade show here for at least 10 years. They do a lot of great demonstrations on the floor, so it’s a well-attended event.”

While Providence planners scout for national organizations, Newport generally bids for groups from the Northeast, from Boston to Washington. The number of those smaller events has been on the rise, too, according to Tim Walsh, vice president for sales at the Newport & Bristol Country Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“We’re making our way up from the recession low point,” he said. “We’ve been up a little for the current fiscal year, and we project another increase in the year ahead.”

What draws conventions and business events to Rhode Island? The state’s cultural atmosphere is a big lure. In Providence, that means restaurants, theaters, clubs and events such as WaterFire. In Newport, it’s mansions, historic architecture and the city’s maritime heritage.

“Our central location has a lot to do with it, too,” Walsh added. “A good percentage of the country’s population is within a few hours drive. If they’re further away, we have Amtrak and T. F. Green.” •


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