High-Rise Hopes

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Ask Franklin County Commissioner Paula Brooks to identify the greatest champion of a new hotel in downtown Columbus and her answer may surprise you. “It was quite interesting to me to have been approached by the hotel competitors in the industry, who, across the board, said ‘We need another hotel.’ They were essentially lobbying for more competition among themselves, because they understood the capacity issue, and that if we added this 500-bed, full-service hotel, it would actually bring more business to them,” she says.

Be careful what you wish for. When it opens late this year, the $140 million Hilton Columbus Downtown, currently a Tyvek-swaddled structure looming over High Street along the Downtown/Short North divide, will add 532 hotel rooms (48 of them suites) to the 3,800 guest rooms Downtown and nearly 26,000 citywide. The goal: making the city more attractive to meeting and convention planners. Tradeshow Week magazine “identified almost 1,000 groups that we could now go after that we would not have been able to go after without the new package,” says Paul Astleford, president and CEO of Experience Columbus.

So far, so good: At the hotel’s July 2010 groundbreaking, the Southern Baptist Convention announced Columbus would host its 2015 annual meeting—possible only because of the Hilton. The convention is expected to draw 16,000 guests booking 19,530 room nights and spending an estimated $6.2 million.

That’s a lot of money, but it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the total dollars that tourism pumps into the local economy. Brooks says when she was elected in 2005, it was nearly $5 billion. “Now we’re all the way up to $7.3 billion,” she says.

The Hilton Columbus Downtown resulted from collaboration among the Franklin County Board of Commissioners, the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority (FCCFA) and the city of Columbus. The FCCFA owns the land and the 14-story hotel, which will be operated by Hilton Worldwide. The county is backing the bonds for the project and has set aside $8 million in funding support in case the hotel doesn’t meet revenue projections. The city agreed to reserve up to $1.4 million in parking-meter revenue and divert 100 percent of bed taxes on the Hilton for up to 30 years to pay project debt.

For years, local government and tourism officials have longed for a new hotel—not only to retain events in danger of outgrowing the market (think the Arnold Fitness Expo), but also to better utilize the convention center, which is running at less than 60 percent capacity.

“In order for us to really move into the national convention market, we not only needed more hotel rooms in the immediate vicinity of the convention center, we had to have full-service, brand-name hotel rooms,” says Astleford. “Most private-sector developers aren’t willing to commit the kind of financials to build that kind of hotel, and therefore, had it not been for the coordination between our city and our county and our convention facilities authority, had it not been for their willingness to actually own this hotel, this hotel would have never been built.”

Julia Hansen, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing, gives Columbus props for sealing the deal. “This is a city that’s trying to make it happen. They want great things for the people that come in for conventions, the people that come in for tourism, and they’ve got a focus on making their city better, continuing to improve their city,” she says. “There is just this level of cooperation here that you don’t necessarily see very often, and that’s big, because it takes cooperation to get things done.”

The Hilton Columbus Downtown will include 22,800 square feet of meeting space; a 12,000-square-foot ballroom; a 160-seat, full-service restaurant; a 100-seat lounge; a coffee outlet; and an executive lounge. The property, scheduled to open by early October, will connect to the convention center via a skybridge over High Street and benefit from an adjacent FCCFA-owned, 900-space parking garage.

Planners aim to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification from the U.S. Green Building Council through measures such as preferred parking for fuel-efficient vehicles, low-flow plumbing and recycling more than 75 percent of construction waste, says Turner/Smoot project construction manager Heather Cassady.

Another benefit of the project: According to Experience Columbus, since the 2008 Hilton announcement, more than $63 million in renovations have been made to full-service properties including the Hyatt Regency, Crowne Plaza Columbus Downtown, the Westin Columbus, Renaissance Columbus Downtown, Red Roof Inn Columbus Downtown, Holiday Inn Columbus Downtown Capitol Square and the Hilton Columbus at Easton. “It’s been a huge incentive for the upgrade of facilities all throughout the community, and that’s another very big benefit for what I’ll call the entire ‘destination sell,’” Astleford says.

Reprinted from the January 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.