September 13, 2023

Central Ohio Hotels Enjoy Robust Weekend, Event Trade, But Business Travel Still Lags

The past year has brought much to celebrate about the lodging industry in central Ohio. We’ve expanded the state’s premier convention hotel and hosted some of the industry’s biggest and highest-profile events. But for the 75,000 people who make their living in hospitality and the many other businesses that count on the travel economy, there’s no resting on those laurels.

While leisure travel and convention business have largely rebounded from the disruption of the COVID pandemic, “transient” business travel — individuals and small groups coming into town to conduct business — still lags what it was in 2019.

The advent of the Hilton expansion, giving the city Ohio’s only 1,000-key hotel, has put Columbus in the running for big events that it could not have attracted previously. The expanded Hilton’s first big event, last September’s International City/County Managers’ Association’s annual convention, was one of those.

By investing in the Greater Columbus Convention Center, the Hilton and associated parking garages, the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority (CFA) — with the support of city and county leaders — has positioned the city to compete for travel business at a higher level, CFA Board Chairman Joe Savarise says. He adds, “Now, we need to leverage those investments to impact everybody’s bottom line.”

Hyatt Regency Columbus General Manager Stephen Stewart is optimistic but cautious. “Regarding conventions, we’ve seen a lot of really good things and moving forward there’s a lot of group business,” he says, “but we’re not there yet. It’s still a slower pace than we would like to see.”

And while many industries look forward to returning to 2019 levels of activity, that’s not what success looks like, Stewart says. “We need to not just get back to 2019; we need to surpass that,” he says. “We’re four years past that.”

Alan Assaf is chief operating officer of Indus Hotels, owner of 14 central Ohio properties including the Canopy by Hilton and Hampton Inn & Suites, both downtown. Even though the Hilton expansion and other recently opened downtown properties represent competition and more rooms that need to be filled, he believes that with the right sales effort, all central Ohio hotels can benefit from added capacity.

“As an organization, we’ve always embraced new supply,” Assaf says. “We’re not afraid of the growth, but we would like that growth to be strategic in nature. Where does the city want to be in 20 or 30 years?” What he’s seeing — increasingly high-end options like the Hilton Columbus Downtown towers, the Canopy and The Junto in Franklinton — bodes well for the future.

“That elevates the city, so we’re not known as a Cowtown but as a hip, trendy place to be,” he says. “We are a very young, vibrant and diverse community, and the hotel inventory should reflect that.”

While different types of hotels in different locations may cater to different types of business, all benefit to some extent from the room nights generated by downtown conventions. As general manager of the Hilton Columbus Polaris hotel, Nancy Howard counts on transient business and leisure travel along with so-called SMERF groups (social, military, educational, religious and fraternal) for the bulk of her business. But “compression” — when a big downtown event pushes some travelers out to the suburbs — is a welcome bonus for any suburban hotelier.

Along with the numbers of heads in beds (occupancy), the lodging industry measures strength in dollars, via the average daily room rate and revenue per available room. By those measures, central Ohio has some work to do, industry leaders say. Central Ohio’s average room rates are the lowest among peer cities. Still, Savarise, whose full-time job is president and chief executive officer of the Ohio Hotel & Lodging Association, is confident. He sees a future with more major events and higher room rates.

“There are some challenges, but what we have created is the opportunity to improve all of those things,” he said. “The CFA has positioned the community for success and growth.”

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