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Philadelphia's Convention Center faces a challenge: Winter weather

Among the 3,700 at last week's gathering here of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene was Repon Paul of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Jonathan Ripp (right) and David Mamer chat at the Marriott in Center City during the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene convention, a return to Philadelphia for the group. (Clem Murray / Staff Photographer)
Jonathan Ripp (right) and David Mamer chat at the Marriott in Center City during the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene convention, a return to Philadelphia for the group. (Clem Murray / Staff Photographer)Read more

Among the 3,700 at last week's gathering here of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene was Repon Paul of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

For Paul, 35, a researcher who specializes in bacterial and virus surveillance, it was the first visit to Philadelphia.

"The city's quite large. I love it," he said as he made his way back Tuesday to the Philadelphia Marriott, his group's headquarters hotel, from the Convention Center via the enclosed skywalk that connects the two buildings.

But one thing Paul didn't care for? The weather.

"Yesterday, the weather was good," he said, "but today, it's raining." It also rained all day Wednesday. On Thursday, the last day of the five-day convention, the sun shone again, though temperatures were in the low 40s.

Inhospitable weather in late fall and winter - combined with a supersize convention hall - makes for a rather challenging sell, say local tourism and convention officials, who must compete against such Sun Belt cities as Orlando, Las Vegas, and San Diego.

"The first quarter is always tough because we're a Northeast city. It does not guarantee it's always sunny in Philadelphia," said Jack Ferguson, president and chief executive officer of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, charged with booking the Convention Center.

But now that the center's expansion is complete, Ferguson said, and "people can see the bricks and mortar, we're hoping they're looking for a great venue at a great cost."

To win over Sun Belt devotees, that pitch - that premium weather comes at a premium price - is being driven home by the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"When you look at the groups that go to Sun Belt destinations when it's cold in the East or Midwest, they are paying premium prices - the kind you would pay for Philadelphia in September, October, November, or our spring," Ferguson said.

The $786 million expansion, which debuted in March, boosted the size of the Convention Center 62 percent, making it the 14th-largest in the United States. As it prepares for its first winter, a lot is riding on how well that value message resonates.

Traditionally, January to March is a quarter of discontent for this city's hoteliers. Winter occupancy for Center City hotels drops about a third from the peak spring months (April through June).

To "get heads in beds," operators often slash rates to attract business. Any business.

"Convention and group-meeting demand tends to wane in December and January because of the holidays," said Peter Tyson, vice president of PKF Consulting USA. "Leisure demand also falls off and . . . commercial travelers hibernate to an extent."

So a hotel operator "has to be more flexible on pricing and concessions on what he's willing to offer," said Bill Walsh, general manager of the 1,408-room Philadelphia Marriott, which relies on group nights (10 or more individuals) for 70 percent of its business. "You have to look under every rock and tree. . . . Everything you can get."

Ed O'Boyle, director of marketing at Loews Philadelphia Hotel, said his 581-room hotel also relies heavily on incentives. The Marriott, Loews, and the 758-room Sheraton Philadelphia City Center Hotel are considered the city's top three convention hotels.

"Unless we are fortunate to capture a few citywide conventions in these months, it all comes down to the success of our sales teams," O'Boyle said. "We work to find the niche markets that can meet in these months."

But conventions typically start to die down in mid-December, and Philadelphia must compete not only with warm-weather cities but also against its usual Northeast rivals - New York, Washington, Boston, and Baltimore.

"We all compete in terms of destination . . . and we all have to be creative with packages to attract a guest," said Olivier Rabsch, director of sales and marketing for the Back Bay Hotel Boston. "In the winter, who wants to come in the middle of a snowstorm? Let's be very realistic. It's difficult to compete with those types of destinations in the winter."

A room last week at his hotel was starting as low as $209 midweek, down from $350 a month ago, said Rabsch.

"We're all fishing in the same pond for the same customers," said Marriott's Walsh. It's so slow this time of year, he said, he created a management sales-staff position charged strictly with looking for business during the holidays, the first quarter, and gaps between large conventions.

To generate nonconvention business, a full push is on to make sure Philadelphia is on everyone's radar, especially international travelers'.

"Tax Free Philly," a campaign to promote tax-free shopping here, launched Thursday in the United Kingdom, geared toward consumer and business travelers, said Sarah Reese, a spokeswoman at the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Also on Thursday, Mayor Nutter announced "Philly New Year's Week" to jump-start the first quarter. Events will include the National Hockey League's Winter Classic between the Flyers and the New York Rangers, an Eagles-Redskins game, the Mummers Parade, and waterfront fireworks.

On Jan. 2, Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corp. plans to launch an $825,000 "With Love Philadelphia XOXO" campaign targeting couples here and in the New York/North Jersey area.

"We know from our research that couples are the most likely travelers during this period," said GPTMC president and CEO Meryl Levitz. "[And] we know that people are more likely to travel closer to home in the winter months."

"A getaway with a spouse or partner" was the top reason listed for visiting the city in winter in each of the last four years - cited by nearly 40 percent, GPTMC says.

Meanwhile, Ferguson has been busy reminding groups that turned down Philadelphia in the past because of space concerns to take another look. The bigger Convention Center can now hold two major simultaneous events: A convention or trade show can book space during the auto and flower shows - the city's mega-gate shows in January and March, respectively - which was impossible before.

"If you are looking for a good buy, here are some good dates in the first quarter," Ferguson said. "There is so much flexibility because there is so much inventory."

That's what sold Lyn Maddox, director of meetings and exhibits for the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. The group, whose global membership focuses on the treatment and prevention of diseases affecting the poor, gathered here last week for the third time in nine years. Each time, it has arrived in November or December.

"The [hotel] rates are better, and our attendance has been fabulous," said Maddox - up 1,200 from 2007, the last time the group met here, and about 30 percent of participants came from abroad. They booked 4,600 total room nights at the Marriott and used 10 meeting rooms and a ballroom in the original Convention Center building.

"It worked perfectly that the Convention Center was right there," said Maddox. "We were able to put some things there and still utilize the hotel space."

Cold-Weather Competition

Sun Belt cities that are significant competition for Philadelphia during the winter month for business from conventions, groups, or meetings:

SOURCE: Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau