Lost Conventions Trigger Downtown Hotelier Imbroglio

By DEBORAH BELGUM
Staff Reporter

Already facing stiff competition for the convention dollar, L.A. recently lost two major conferences because the 1,354-room Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Spa turned down the business, leading to sniping by other downtown hotel managers.

The Shriners of North America, which would have booked more than 20,000 room nights around July 4, 2007, and pump nearly $10 million into the economy, is going to Anaheim instead because the organization couldn't nail down a headquarters hotel in Los Angeles. The Shriners had wanted to book the Bonaventure because of its large size.

The biennial American Veterinary Medical Association conference, which downtown hotel managers and the convention bureau lobbied for nearly three years, wound up booking its 2009 meeting in Seattle after being unable to get space at the Bonaventure. The veterinary group, based in Schaumburg, Ill., said it needed at least 1,000 hotel rooms and meeting space under one roof before it could commit to a convention that would have netted the downtown hotel industry 11,000 room nights.

Losing both meetings in recent weeks has intensified the claims by local hoteliers about the Bonaventure obstructing efforts to attract more business. Compounding the downtown tussle is that the owner of the Bonaventure, Peter Zen, has been a critic of the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau for its failure to bring more conventions to town. Zen recently was elected president of the Los Angeles Convention Center Commission, an advisory panel appointed by Mayor James Hahn to help get conventions to town.

Zen referred all questions about the conferences to Bonaventure manager Brian Fitzgerald, who denied that the hotel is causing the city to lose business. He said Bonaventure executives are just trying to make the best decisions for the hotel.

The Bonaventure will not participate in the veterinary meeting, Fitzgerald said, because it is the site for an annual Self-Realization Fellowship meeting held during the first week of August.

While the fellowship has not signed a letter of intent for its 2009 conference, the hotel has been hesitant to give away that week to another group unless there is a locked-in convention to take its place. "Am I going to move our best client from one date to another and then again? No," Fitzgerald said.

But downtown hoteliers said that the Bonaventure's intransigence has become a consistent problem, which is why the convention bureau and many in the hotel industry support a new 1,200-room hotel near Staples Center and the L.A. Convention Center.

"The city is held hostage by the Bonaventure and their sales strategies," noted John Stoddard, general manager of the Wilshire Grand, the second largest downtown hotel.

Stoddard and others point to other events that almost disappeared, such as the National Hockey League All-Star game that was in town early this year. When the hockey league was scouting for venues, the Bonaventure turned down overtures about being the headquarters hotel.



Role as headquarters

"We came close to losing the hockey league, but all the hotels pitched in and added extra rooms and meeting rooms," said Stoddard, whose Wilshire Grand Hotel became the headquarters for the league even though it had to work with other hotels to get enough room inventory.

Frank Sapovitz, the NHL's group vice president of events and entertainment in New York, confirmed that the "Bonaventure didn't seem particularly interested in our business. We generally don't find hotels to be intractable. We found the Bonaventure more on the intractable side."

The Shriners wanted a large block of meeting rooms the week before their convention for smaller business gatherings, but they wouldn't have filled the hotel that week. Fitzgerald said he needed those meeting rooms to book hotel rooms. "The value of my meeting rooms is to help sell rooms," he said.

To woo the Shriners, the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau lined up the same route used by the Hollywood Christmas Parade for the Shriners' two parades held during their annual get-together. "We never should have lost it," said Bill Buckley, the bureau's executive vice president of sales.

While Bonaventure executives said they would be more than willing to allot 1,100 rooms for the Shriners' event, they didn't want to be the Shriners' headquarters hotel, which was essential to the group, said Charles Cumpstone, the Shriners' executive vice president. "They just weren't willing to give us all the meeting space we needed and be the official headquarters hotel," Cumpstone said.

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