Thanks to a first-class infrastructure, impressive hotel openings and a plethora of top-rank arts-and-entertainment venues, Denver has moved into the top rank of U.S. meeting destination. By David Pye, May/June 2008
At 5,280 ft. above sea level, Denver is known as the ‘Mile High City,’ and this mountain metropolis of 2.6-million people is certainly living up to its nickname. In 2006, the city’s meetings business soared to record numbers, hosting more than 320,000 convention delegates and generating revenues exceeding $520-million U.S. And the city believes the best is yet to come.
“We’re showing up a lot higher on the radar right now,” says Douglas Small, senior vice-president of the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Denver has transitioned in the last couple of years from a strong tier-two city to one that is now on the top-ten list of first-tier cities in relation to conventions business.”
The city’s reputation has been bolstered by its selection as the site for the August, 2008, Democratic National Convention, beating out New York City for the lucrative event.
Anchoring Denver’s meetings assets is the Colorado Convention Center (CCC), featuring 584,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space and over 2-million sq. ft. of total useable space. The downtown facility was built in 1990 and, in 2004, doubled its capacity to become the 16th largest facility of its kind in the U.S. The CCC features 63 meeting rooms offering more than 100,000 sq. ft. of space on a single level, as well as two ballrooms featuring a combined 85,000 sq. ft. of banquet space. The modern structure, encased in tinted green and pink glass, also houses the Wells-Fargo Theater, a 5,000-seat auditorium equally suited to corporate lectures and musical performances by the likes of Bruce Springsteen. The CCC abuts the Denver Center for Performing Arts, a 10-theatre complex with a glass atrium capable of accommodating up to 5,000 guests for cocktail receptions.
“The Colorado Convention Centre was essentially designed by a team of meeting planners, and they did a great job,” notes Small.
Moreover, the CCC is supported by the adjacent Hyatt Regency at Colorado Convention Center, a headquarter hotel with 1,000 rooms dedicated to the conventions market and 60,600 sq. ft. of additional meeting space.
Denver is graced with a compact downtown core featuring approximately 7,400 quality hotel rooms within walking distance of the Convention Center. In all, the city boasts a portfolio of 42,000 rooms city-wide, including the ‘big five’ convention hotels.
In addition to the Hyatt Regency, the ‘big five’ includes another Hyatt property – the Grand Hyatt Denver – a 512-room hotel offering 58,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Denver’s largest hotel, the Sheraton, features 1,200 rooms and 133,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. A re-brand, in spring, 2008, of the Adam’s Mark hotel – the city’s primary convention address prior to the opening of the Hyatt Regency – the Sheraton will, over the next two years, undergo a $70-million renovation to all guest, meeting and public spaces.
Rounding out the ‘big five’ properties are the 430-room Westin Tabor Center, featuring 24,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, and the 601-room Marriott City Center, with 25,000 sq. ft. of space spread across 24 meeting rooms.
Downtown Denver is also home to The Curtis, an innovative hotel experience featuring an elaborate pop-culture theme. Each of the property’s 13 floors offers guests a different retro theme ranging from Fun & Games to One Hit Wonders, TV Mania and the Floor of Champions. The 336-room hotel launched in January, 2007, and features 19,000 sq. ft. of function space, including 12 meeting rooms.
Denver’s rapidly-growing reputation as a convention city is matched by an equally rapid expansion of its supporting infrastructure. Eight new downtown hotels, with a combined 1,400 rooms, are slated to open in the next three years, including the addition, in 2009, of a 230-room Four Seasons, which will open as a 16-floor property topped by 29 floors of private residences featuring spectacular views of the Rocky Mountains. Another hotel in that group of new properties is the 202-room Ritz-Carlton. An $88-million refurbishment of the former Embassy Suites Hotel, the Ritz opened in January, 2008, and features 13,000 sq. ft. of additional downtown meeting space.
For Paul Martin, a financial and systems analyst with the University of Western Ontario, Denver has the right combination of ingredients for his delegates. Martin also wears the hat of vice-president of conference services for the Higher Education Users Group, an organization comprised of universities and colleges around the world who all use Oracle software. Martin is in charge of site selection for the group’s annual Alliance conferences, a three-and- a-half day event welcoming approximately 5,000 international delegates.
“We start looking at a destination from the airport on, and it was very easy to see that people from all over the world could get to Denver,” says Martin. “We were also very impressed with the way the city and hotels all work together to promote a single objective – to ensure that all of our needs are met.”
The group chooses its venues five years out and Martin chose Denver for the 2011 conference. They will use seven hotels in the downtown core, including all of the ‘big five’ properties. Another big plus for Martin was the state-of-the-art Convention Center, which is ideally designed for groups like his who hold meetings as opposed to exhibitions.
“We usually look at three sites per year and try to come up with a cost per attendee that factors in hotel rates, airfare and facility charges,” says Martin. “We felt that Denver really wanted our business and they made concessions that will make it more economically feasible than our 2006 event.”
Martin also factors in attributes such as a safe urban environment and a city’s choice of activities and side trips for delegates – and was pleased with Denver’s diverse offering. The city has been working hard to establish itself as a compelling destination and has undertaken several initiatives in pursuit of that goal. Based on a successful New York City model, the city recently embarked on a marketing campaign to promote its culinary assets through Denver Restaurants Week, a programme showcasing some of the city’s finest cuisine. And there’s terrific variety among a community of 2,000 restaurants serving everything from gourmet international dishes to Colorado specialties like Rocky Mountain trout and buffalo.
“There are a lot of choices for our delegates, who traditionally like to add on time before or after our conferences,” says Martin. “There is so much to do in the city and the mountains are not far away.”
ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
The city has also developed a world-class arts and entertainment scene, showcased by initiatives like Denver Arts Week and supported by acclaimed museums and performing-arts facilities. When added to a top-notch meetings infrastructure, these initiatives have helped position Denver as a city featuring the full gamut of components attractive to planners.
Moreover, Denver’s infrastructure shines. It starts with Denver International Airport, a United Airlines super-hub and home to fast-growing Frontier Airlines. Flights into Denver are easily accessible from anywhere in the world, and the airport’s 1,500 daily flights position it as the fourth busiest airport in the U.S. and ninth busiest in the world. Within the city itself, Denver’s light-rail system is undergoing a $4.7-billion expansion that will add 119 miles of track as part of the largest light-rail initiative in U.S. history. By 2014, all quadrants of the Metro area will be connected by light-rail service, including service from the downtown core to the airport.
The hub of Denver’s closely-knit downtown scene is the 16th Street Mall, a mile-long pedestrian corridor designed by architect I.M. Pei and running through the heart of the city. The mall is serviced by free shuttle buses that continuously run from end to end, transporting passengers along the main artery of the ‘big five’ hotels, the Convention Center and a plethora of dining and shopping locales.
Denver is also one of only two cities in the U.S., along with Philadelphia, that boasts eight professional sports franchises, and all of them play in state-of-the-art facilities built after 2000. The city has hosted the all-star games of every major league in North America, showcasing it, and its facilities, to the world.
“These are all venues that were built to accommodate a multitude of events and a lot of our corporate groups use them for entertainment,” says Small. “They are all located close to the downtown core and are also easily accessible through the light-rail system.”
Some of Denver’s most unique venues include the Red Rocks Amphitheater, a 9,000-seat outdoor facility carved into the red sandstone cliffs of one of the region’s most concentrated archeological hotbeds. Just 20 miles from downtown Denver, the site is one of the most popular outdoor venues for live recordings of rock concerts and is a popular entertainment venue for convention groups. In 2002, the amphitheatre underwent a $26-million renovation and, along with the Convention Center and the Denver Center for Performing Arts, is a city-owned facility with a single contact point for meeting planners.
“We compete against some great destinations, so having some truly unique venues gives us a nice little competitive edge,” says Small. “For corporate groups that like to have the arts community close by, Denver is a city like no other.”
Situated in the foothills, Denver is also the gateway to the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide, so it is no surprise that one in three convention delegates takes a pre- or post-convention vacation in Colorado. World-class ski resorts like Vail are popular draws year-round, and are within 90 minutes of downtown Denver. The Vail Resort & Spa is undergoing a $30-million renovation that will include a new 4,000-sq.-ft. executive conference facility and a 600-sq.-ft. expansion of the scenic Creekside meeting room.
Scenic Colorado Springs is another popular destination for the meetings market, anchored by The Broadmoor, a 700-room luxury resort featuring 185,000 sq. ft. of flexible event space and a world-class spa. Rocky Mountain National Park offers a 400-sq.-mi. scenic highway that crosses the Continental Divide, while the historic mining towns of Central City and Black Hawk have been converted into entertainment hubs featuring 30 casinos. Hiking, fishing, skiing, golf and sightseeing are all on the menu within a short distance of Denver, adding another level of what Small refers to as “destination appeal.”
“Denver is a fresh, new alternative to places like Chicago, [Washington] D.C. or Las Vegas, and offers meeting planners a strong new infrastructure that is attracting a lot of attention,” he says. “Those who have experienced it have been blown away, and word of mouth is spreading quickly.”
– David Pye is a Montreal-based freelancer writer.
Photo: Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau