Packed hotels offer hope for a busier downtown

BY MARGARITA BAUZAFREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER

Downtown Detroit is just about booked for the weekend.

With at least four conventions in town, and the Lions home opener against the Green Bay Packers, it could be hard to find a room downtown.

Visitors found themselves in a similar state two weekends ago, as Detroit welcomed the Grand Prix, the Jazz Festival and Tigers fans, along with attendees for cultural, music and gaming offerings.

MGM Grand Detroit and MotorCity Casino have worked together on several occasions to accommodate large groups between the two's combined 800 rooms, officials say.

The successes show the potential for the city to generate enough business to support the nearly 2,000 hotel rooms that, by the end of this year, will have been added since 2004, even while opening during tough economic times, convention and hospitality leaders say. The long-anticipated Westin Book Cadillac hotel and the Fort Shelby Doubletree Guest Suites will join newly opened hotels like the MGM Grand and MotorCity Casino in trying to attract conventions.
The 367-room Detroit Riverside Hotel, across from Cobo Hall, also underwent a $35-million face-lift this year.

Click here for a graphic of hotels in the area.

A four-day convention of 1,000 people would generate $1.2 million for the local economy and be a big boost to the city, said Mike O'Callaghan, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Weekends are now strong, hotels report. The key to succeeding over the long haul, they say, will be to attract business during weekdays, which could prove an immediate challenge.

"We're running hard to get business to Detroit," O'Callaghan said.

The bureau has increased its sales staff by 20% to 24 people, dispatching teams to Washington, Chicago, Lansing and Los Angeles. It has two people dedicated solely to attracting and servicing the growing film production business lured by the state's large incentives.

It has landed successes, such as the Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympics, which used 40,000 rooms over a week in July. The United States Bowling Congress women's championships in Canton that went on for almost three months this summer used more than 30,000 rooms.

The saga surrounding departing Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick hurt the convention business this year. The Conference of Black Mayors moved its 2,000-delegate, four-day meeting set for June from Detroit to New Orleans, citing Kilpatrick's legal troubles.

Detroit's biggest challenge to attracting conventions now is Cobo Center, O'Callaghan said.
"It's a property that is showing its age," he said, adding that it needs to be expanded and its governance tweaked to accommodate input from all three counties.

Meanwhile, the existing hotels will have an impact on attracting midsize conventions and meetings to casino hotels.

John Hutar, MGM Grand Detroit vice president of hotel operations, said all the growth will allow for booking conventions that couldn't fit in Detroit beforehand.

"It used to be that if Cobo Hall had availability but the large hotels were sold out, Detroit could not accommodate that convention," Hutar said.

"We have dates in 2010 and 2011 where new entrants such as MGM, MotorCity and the Westin Book Cadillac are splitting the conventions," he said.

So far, MGM Grand has been exceeding expectations over the weekends, largely due to professional sports, he added.

"Detroit is an incredible sports town," he said. "We have high occupancy when the Lions are in town, and that gets amplified when the Red Wings start their season."

In August, even though the MGM was a late entrant to book guests for the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, it still did well.

The MotorCity Casino's hotel also has been bustling on weekends.

"We've had lots of social events, weddings almost every weekend, it has been really busy," said Chief Operating Officer Rhonda Cohen. For the Grand Prix, a Dodge Viper fan club of 900 people was split between the MotorCity and the MGM Grand.

And she welcomes increased competition from the Westin Book Cadillac, which is to open next month, and the Fort Shelby Doubletree, which is to open in December.

The Book Cadillac is to add 453 rooms; the Fort Shelby is to add 203 suites.

"Quality products are good for the whole market," Cohen said. "The more quality products that come downtown, the better it is for downtown."

Shannon Dunavent, general manager of the Fort Shelby, said bookings are strong for existing events such as the NCAA Final Four in April, the North American International Auto Show in January and the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress in the spring.

Scott Stinebaugh, director of sales at the Westin Book Cadillac, says that despite strong bookings for weddings and parties, 2009 could prove to be a challenging year.

"The auto industry is challenged, and the amount of citywide business in 2009 is down," he said. "It's going to be a transitional year for the downtown market. It remains to be seen how the market absorbs the additional inventory.

"But again, and you'll hear this over and over, we couldn't attract larger conventions unless we have enhanced room packages. This had to happen to reap the benefits."
by Crain's Detroit Business

Travelers coming into Detroit through the Detroit Windsor Tunnel next year will be able to use electronic toll cards to more quickly get over the border.


The tunnel plaza on the Detroit side will also be expanded next year to include an 11th inspection lane, and all incoming lanes will be upgraded by the end of November to add all current and some pending electronic identification technology.The $3.8 million project was announced Monday morning at a press conference by Neal Belitsky, CEO and general manager of Detroit Windsor Tunnel L.L.C.
“The goal is to provide accelerated service,” he said, with the target being a 20 percent boost in capacity and a reduction in wait times.

No date was announced for the toll cards to go on sale, but Belitsky said it will be in the spring.


The electronic cards are initially for entering the U.S. side of the border, Belitsky said. Plans remain under discussion with Canadian authorities to implement the service in Windsor.


Electronic devices will instantly deduct the cost of crossing prior to entering the tunnel, and can be ordered and recharged online.


Some lanes will require the cards 24 hours a day, he said.Currently, the tunnel has two lanes for Nexus card holders, but that will be expanded to all lanes this year.


Additionally, all lanes will be able to process the forthcoming improved passports and drivers licenses that will include electronic identification capabilities, Belitsky said.


The new toll cards, which will be usable only at the tunnel, will have some sort of rewards program for frequent travelers, but details on the incentives are being worked out.


The tunnel will continue to accept cash, credit cards and tokens, Belitsky said.Tokens eventually will be phased out, with sales ending at some point, but no date has been set for their elimination at the tunnel, Belitsky said.About 6 million vehicles use the tunnel annually now, Belitsky said, down from about 9 million prior to 2001. During 3 p.m.-7 p.m. rush hour, about 1,000 vehicles an hour use the tunnel.


The tunnel company will launch what it calls a “major marketing campaign” about six months before the cards go live, he said. That includes a push at area hospitals for nurses to use the cards because a large number of nurses in the region cross the border.


The plaza expansion will include infrastructure improvements, a new U.S. Customs and Border Protection office, renovated roadway and implementation of dual-service booths.
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