Quietly, Philadelphia's becoming a major player

PHILADELPHIA -- Frantic hotel construction, new attractions and a booming convention business highlighted by next summer's Republic National Convention have officials here believing things have never looked brighter in the City of Brotherly Love.

Fresh off showcasing the city to more than 3,000 delegates of Meeting Professionals International last month, Mike Gamble, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau, said things are just starting to heat up.

"There's a tremendous amount of growth going on in Philadelphia right now -- a sense of readying for the convention," Gamble said.

"We will add more than 4,000 hotel rooms by the time the RNC arrives in July 2000. It's amazing growth."

When all is said is done, the city will have more than 3,000 hotel rooms within a two block walk of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Gamble said.

Some of those new developments include: the recent completion of the expansion of the 1,410-room Philadelphia Marriott, which connects directly to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, construction on the 500-room Marriott Courtyard, the 583-room Loews Philadelphia Hotel, the 350-room Ritz Carlton, Philadelphia, the 193-room Sheraton Rittenhouse Square Hotel.

In the next 12 months, Philadelphia will increase its hotel inventory 60%, bringing room counts to 10,000 in Philadelphia and 30,000 in the metropolitan area, according to Sue Schwenderman, director of communications for the PCVB.

And the city may need every one of them to accommodate the 40,000 or so the PCVB is expecting to descend for the RNC next summer, Schwenderman said.

But MPI and the RNC are just half of the pieces to the PCVB's puzzle, Gamble said.

In August 2001, the Washington-based American Society of Association Executives will hit Philadelphia for its show, while Birmingham, Ala.-based Professional Convention Management Association recently signed on for its 2006 show.

"No other convention city has accomplished what Philadelphia has in such a short time," Tom Muldoon, president of the PCVB said.

Since the opening of the Pennsylvania Convention Center in 1994, Philadelphia has hosted many of the industry's largest conventions and become the top convention destination in the Northeast.

Philadelphia's downtown room rate averages $140 a night, considerably cheaper than nearby New York, Washington and Boston.

Gamble has his sights set clearly on the biggest players -- Las Vegas, Orlando and Chicago.

"I've never understood what exactly determines first-tier or second-tier convention cities," Gamble said. "But, we absolutely consider ourselves a first-tier convention city, not just a major player in the Northeast."

But with new hotels popping up like wildflowers, will there continue to be enough demand to keep occupancy levels -- which have been running in the 75% range -- up?

"That's obviously a concern for us. This type of room inventory growth in such a short time is unheard of and it's going to be nearly impossible to keep the occupancy rates as high as they are now," Gamble said.

"We're going to have our work cut out for us, but the demand is there."

The PCVB is responsible for some 40 city-wide conventions to the convention center a year, as well as bringing in more than 600 smaller groups a year to the city.

In addition, The PCVB said it is booking some 24 shows a year requiring 2,000 or more room nights. Gamble said that number will have to climb to about 28 a year to keep up with the additional demand.

There's a plan in the works to expand the convention center, but that's still several years away, the PCVB said.

With the possibility of under demand in the next few years, Philadelphia has become a bit of meeting planners dream, Gamble said.

"We get unprecedented cooperation from the hotels as far as securing room blocks for large shows," Gamble said.

"We blocked more than 90% of the city's available hotel rooms for the RNC. We don't get quite the leisure or corporate market of a New York, Washington or Boston, so we get total cooperation from the city hotels."

Another advantage planners will soon find is the September launch of the PCVB Web site, located at www.pcvb.org.

One of the new features, Gamble said, is the ability to key in questions about meetings in Philadelphia and get immediate responses.

"Visitors to the Web site will be able to converse and interact with a PCVB representative on line," Gamble said.

"The computer will indicate that someone's inquiring on line and one of our representatives will handle it as though someone was walking up to the desk in the visitor center."

For the future of the site, Gamble said he envisions users being able to do anything and everything on the site, including electronic site inspections and RFPs on line.

Other new brick-and-mortar developments in Philadelphia include: Lights of Liberty, a sound and light show that enables visitors to experience the events of the American revolution; DisneyQuest, Disney's indoor, interactive theme park set to open in the summer of 2000, a family entertainment complex on the Penn's Landing waterfront.

Finally, a plan is in the final stages to bring a baseball stadium to a downtown site just two blocks from the convention center in 2002 or 2003.

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