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Riverfront eyes bright future for big conventions

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WILMINGTON – With the Riverfront’s “Hotel Row” now in operation, the area is beginning to see increased traction with organizers seeking space for large conventions and events ““ as evidenced by the landing of the city’s largest convention to date: a five-night affair with an estimated $771,000 economic impact, officials said.

For many years, Wilmington and New Castle County have heard that they were limited in their ability to attract big, multi-day conferences because of a lack of available hotel room capacity. That changed beginning in 2014, when Buccini/Pollin Group (BPG) opened its Westin brand hotel next to the Chase Center on the Riverfront convention center, and now new attention has been paid to northern Delaware’s ability to host such events.

The Westin Hotel along with two other hotels has helped draw new attention to the Chase Center on the Riverfront. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

After BPG opened its Homewood Suites by Hilton hotel and Onix Group opened its Hyatt Place hotel within a stone’s throw of the Chase Center last year, the number of available rooms more than doubled at the Riverfront, said Sarah Willoughby, executive director of the Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is tasked with drawing events to New Castle County and the city.

“We are finding that since the hotels have opened, we’ve seen a definite interest in the Riverfront,” she said, noting that the bureau has included information on the new hotels in their marketing materials for the last six months.

Meeting planners prefer to have at least half of their hotel rooms within walking distance of the event space, Willoughby explained. With 414 rooms now available between the Westin, Hyatt and Homewood Suites hotels, the Riverfront could conceivably draw events with attendance upward of 800 people. 

“That’s a game changer for us,” Willoughby said.

The first large success for the Riverfront is the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) annual conference and exhibition scheduled for Sept. 20-24 at the Chase Center. The event for local, state, and federal commercial motor vehicle safety officials and industry representatives has secured room blocks in seven hotels, Willoughby noted, adding that it will draw more than 500 people.

“We had a lead come in on that conference and we went out, met with the organizers and arranged a site visit,” she said. “Its impact starts to multiply and spread once you get into the details.”

Other off-site events will include spaces around Wilmington, including The Queen theater, Willoughby said.

“The new hotels definitely helped us secure this business,” she said of the event that was hosted in Kansas City, Missouri; and Biloxi, Mississippi, the last two years.

CVSA typically takes the convention to the state or area where its current president is from, Willoughby explained. Delaware State Police Sgt. John Samis serves as president this year.

The CVSA conference isn’t the only success story, though, Willoughby said, pointing to the securing of the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association Symposium scheduled for February 2021. That event at the Chase Center with block bookings at two Riverfront hotels brings an estimated 400 people and $300,000 in economic impact. Last year it was hosted in St. Louis, Missouri, and it will be in South Padre Island, Texas, next month.

The addition of new major events like these are “creating a good buzz” about Delaware as a destination, allowing it to begin competing for events that it may not have been considered for before, Willoughby said.

Although the Chase Center is considered a third-tier convention center by size – it has more than 100,000 square feet of exhibition and meeting space, compared to a first-tier center such as the Pennsylvania Convention Center with 1 million square feet – Willoughby said that “we’re getting closer with the second tier,” which includes areas like Valley Forge, Pa.

Despite challenges like a lack of a major airport, Chase Center Assistant Sales Director Dee Huntsman emphasized that her venue has benefits that others cannot tout, including free parking and no state sales tax.

“Part of our job is changing some perceptions too, and we like to remind people that Wilmington is about as far from Philadelphia International Airport as downtown Philadelphia,” she said.

Huntsman said that the space is actively prospecting for future multi-day events, submitting requests for proposals on conventions that book lucrative multi-year contracts. Those potential proposals probably wouldn’t bear fruit prior to 2022 though, as existing contracts run out, she said.

“We’re competing against similar third-tier markets; one we hear of most often is Rhode Island, which has similar demographics and available space,” she said. “One of the challenges for us though is that other centers have attached hotels, which may be a concern for some due to the potential for inclement weather at certain times of the year.”

As they continue to prospect new events, the Chase Center retains a strong booking schedule in the spring and fall that features annual corporate meetings and regional one- and multi-day events, Huntsman emphasized. 

“We’ve hosted corporate meetings for banking, pharmaceutical, and engineering companies,” she said. “We even had a hydraulic manufacturing company based in the Midwest that chose Wilmington because it was a good central point for its American and European offices.”

The Hyatt Place hotel opened in October, adding to the available rooms at the Riverfront. | DBT PHOTO BY MAX OSBORNE

For the hoteliers, the ability of the Chase Center to draw hundreds of visitors to the Riverfront was an important part of their business models, official said.

“The Chase Center was important for our strategic thinking, and the Riverfront as the entertainment center of Wilmington was obviously a big part of our thinking as well,” said Jonathan Silver, vice president of Onix Group, a real estate investment and management firm based in Kennett Square, Pa., that opened the Hyatt in October.

His firm partnered with owners of the adjoining Big Fish Grill restaurant to create an event space tailored to banquets and wedding reception that has been well received, he said.

“We had some state business meetings in the beginning and then a bunch of Christmas parties in December,” Silver said of the space that can accommodate upward of 225 people. “We’ve got a bunch of RFPs out and bookings set up for the spring and summer months, so we’re looking at a busy year.”

Likewise, Mike Hare, executive vice president for development at BPG, said that his company is “hopeful that the added capacity makes it more attractive to regional meetings and conventions.”

Buccini/Pollin Group opened the Homewood Suites by Hilton in September. | DBT PHOTO BY MAX OSBORNE

Although BPG, which owns the Westin and Hilton hotels, previously announced that it had secured franchise rights for a Marriott hotel at the Riverfront, Hare said there’s no timetable for that third hotel.

“We’re waiting to evaluate the current hotels and see what the market dictates for us,” he said.

After opening the Hilton in September, Hare said that business has been good at the Riverfront despite
the increased competition.

“Travelers are so committed to their points and brands nowadays that all three will do well in the market,” he said, noting that BPG’s 76ers Fieldhouse across the Christina River also draws visitors through youth sports tournaments. “The challenge was getting the multi-day events, and we remain optimistic.”

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