Convention center chief calls lack of waterfront hotels a major problem
The state’s convention center chief says he will not reconsider a plan to expand the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center until the South Boston waterfront gets more hotel rooms.
The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority on Monday released a report from a hotel management adviser, showing the immediacy of the problem.
Boston ranks last, by far, among peer cities for the number of rooms within walking distance of the main convention center. And the pace for booking convention center space is declining from 2018 through 2021, primarily because of the difficulty in assembling blocks of hotel rooms and transportation costs involved with shuttling convention-goers from hotels, the report showed.
“We have a beautiful convention venue that has a fatal flaw: It does not have enough hotel rooms,” said David Gibbons, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority.
Gibbons said meeting planners are increasingly turning away from the BCEC because of an insufficient number of nearby rooms. And there’s a secondary problem: The authority is increasingly finding it can’t book the Hynes Convention Center, the authority’s sister facility in the Back Bay, because hotels near that facility are already booked for conventions at the 12-year-old BCEC.
“The report shows we’ve spent the past decade robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Gibbons said. “Phase One of the BCEC is not really complete until you have the [hotel room] inventory to service it. We spent a decade serving it from the other side of town and at the expense of the other side of town.”
Gibbons, a former hotelier, said he plans to use the report from hotel management adviser CHMWarnick as part of an effort to persuade public officials and industry leaders that more hotels need to be built.
“I will knock on a lot of doors, public and private, to get the message across,” he said.
The director commissioned the study soon after Governor Charlie Baker’s administration picked him in December to run the convention center authority. One big goal: to determine whether to resurrect plans to expand the BCEC, a $1 billion project that Baker halted in 2015.
Gibbons said the report shows that it makes no sense to reconsider expanding the South Boston convention center until there are enough rooms within walking distance to support the existing facility. While the report itself did not specify how many more rooms are needed, Gibbons said the convention center could use as many as 2,000 additional rooms in the neighborhood.
Several hotels opened in South Boston in recent years, but the new report shows that two of those facilities don’t have any rooms committed to convention blocks.
After the Baker administration halted the convention center expansion, the Massachusetts Port Authority scaled back its ambitions for a so-called “headquarters hotel” across Summer Street. Massport had initially wanted to build a hotel there with at least 1,200 rooms, in tandem with the expansion.
The authority has since reduced the minimum number of rooms to 250, although officials there would like to see more, possibly 500 or so. The authority is currently weighing bids from six development teams for the job.
While Gibbons said the state shouldn’t resort to subsidies, he said his new report highlights the demand for a headquarters hotel.
“There was a narrative on the table that you only needed the headquarters hotel if you expanded,” Gibbons said. “That was totally wrong.”
The report underscores the fact that not all hotel rooms are created equal, when it comes to convention planning. Meeting planners generally look for full-service hotels, and some boutique hotels don’t appear to be making any rooms available to conventions for discounted rates.
“You need to be able to get more hotels built, and not necessarily these boutique hotels and select service hotels,” said Patrick Moscaritolo, the chief executive of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The new report also shows that hotel managers throughout the city are making fewer rooms available for convention blocks, because of the high demand they’re seeing from other business and leisure travelers.
“In times of a booming economy [in Boston], it gets more and more difficult to assemble a room block with six or seven hotels,” Moscaritolo said. “So you’re going with 12 or 14 hotels.”
Moscaritolo said more local hoteliers should recognize the benefits of locking in a block of lower-priced rooms for the long term, as an insurance policy to protect against potential declines in revenue during a future economic downturn.
And like Gibbons, Moscaritolo argues that the state shouldn’t need to subsidize hotels. State officials, he said, should spend more money on public transit, roads, and bridges instead.
“There are massive infrastructure demands and needs that have just been ignored,” Moscaritolo said.
“That, to me, should have a higher priority than subsidizing hotels.”