Moving beyond the business traveler

With occupancy down or flat, hotels in Fairfield and Westchester are courting sports fans and film crews to fill rooms

Jan.January 04, 2018 11:00 AM

Meyer Jabara Hotels is looking to expand Cambria Hotel & Suites with new locations in Westchester.

From film crews to sports fans, hotels in Westchester and Fairfield counties are looking to increase demand by appealing to a different class of consumer.

Corporate travel has reliably fueled hotel-room demand in both counties for years. But with room supply increasing, both areas have targeted other sources — the film and television industry in Westchester, and sports and entertainment aficionados in Fairfield — to expand and diversify their clientele.

When appealing to these groups, what the two hotel markets also have in common is an emphasis on value: Average room rates in both areas are significantly lower than in New York City or Boston, two destinations easily accessible by car and public transportation.

“There are 23 million people within a two-and-a-half-hour drive,” said H. Scott Phelps, president of the Connecticut Convention & Sports Bureau. “We are an affordable New England destination.”

Of the two markets, Fairfield is more hotel-rich, with 75 properties and about 8,660 rooms, according to STR, a hotel data and analytics specialist. Through October 2017, Fairfield’s occupancy rate dropped year over year by 4.6 percent to 64 percent. That’s an ongoing trend: “Occupancy has declined for the third year running,” said Jan Freitag, senior vice president at STR. Average daily rates in 2017 are on par with 2016 at $124.47.

Meanwhile, Westchester County has seen recent growth in supply, adding two hotels since early 2016 for a total of 44 properties and growing to about 6,450 rooms in 2017. Occupancy is tracking flat for 2017 following a 2 percent drop in 2016. Average daily rates remained soft in 2017, down 1.6 percent through October to $145.59. “Demand is healthy, but with the new supply comes a lack of pricing power,” Freitag said of Westchester.

Westchester’s screen test

Enter, stage left, the film and TV industry. The makers of both big- and small-screen hits have found the Westchester area hospitable for shoots of projects like “The Americans,” “Billions,” “The Girl on the Train” and commercials. In 2016, Westchester hosted 532 production days, a 67 percent increase from 2014. Revenue from film permits in White Plains is up 100 percent in 2017 over 2016 and is projected to continue growing into 2018, according to White Plains’ Special Projects Director Jill Iannetta.

Even shoots with small casts and crews can mean serious income for hotels. The Hilton Westchester, with 445 rooms, recently hosted a three-day shoot for an upcoming documentary about car designer John DeLorean starring Alec Baldwin. Though there were just six people staying, they booked one suite, several extra rooms for tradespeople such as makeup artists to ply their crafts, and ballroom space.

David Catalon, the Hilton Westchester’s director of sales and marketing, said the interest is constant: “We talk to location scouts at least once a week.”

Among Westchester’s newer properties meeting demand for competitive pricing and close proximity to Manhattan and the Bronx is the 150-room Hampton Inn & Suites By Hilton in Yonkers, which opened in the fall of 2016.

On the county’s eastern shore, in New Rochelle, construction has begun on the new 80-room luxury V Hotel, part of Choice Hotels’ Ascend Collection, set to be a LEED Silver building, according to the hotel’s chief development officer, Abraham Philips.

“We are very bullish and positive about New Rochelle,” said Philips. “We have had the property since 2012, and we felt this was the right time.” The V Hotel is part of New Rochelle’s 10-year, $4 billion investment in the downtown area (see page 16), which will include as many as 1,200 hotel rooms.

The area’s two major hotels — the Radisson Hotel and the Residence Inn by Marriott  — are still in high demand from business travelers and tourists heading into the city, said New Rochelle Development Commissioner Luiz Aragon. The community is working to bring in larger chain hotels as part of the overall development plan, he said, but he could not mention brands.

Similarly, Justin Jabara — vice president of development and acquisitions for Meyer Jabara Hotels — said his team has its eyes on some as-yet undisclosed locations for new hotels in the county, following up on the success of the Cambria Hotel & Suites in downtown White Plains in 2014.

Jabara liked the White Plains location because of its potential to attract a mix of business travelers and leisure travelers, as it’s situated near new developments. “The ability of the White Plains market to have both of those was a factor,” he said.

Playing the field

On the Fairfield side, the region has the benefit of its significant capacity to accommodate corporate headquarters, dozens of which are located in Stamford, home to 16.3 million square feet of office space.

But local officials are also touting the area’s wealth of sports facilities and ability to host major events. Fairfield County has regularly hosted NCAA regional tournament games, particularly in hockey and basketball.

“On the weekend, we are starting to pick up as a tournament city,” said Thomas Madden, director of economic development for Stamford.

Though city and county officials are leading the drive for more sports business, hotels see the benefit. After corporate travelers leave for the weekend, rates drop, adding another lure for sports organizations — and their fans — looking for affordable sites, said those in the industry.

But it’s still the power of the business traveler that has Marriott slating one of its extended-stay properties, Residence Inn, for downtown Stamford. Scheduled to open in the fall of 2018, the property is expected to have 156 rooms.

Broker Hal Kurfehs of Coldwell Banker Commercial said he is regularly fielding interest from developers looking to build extended-stay properties. Kurfehs brokered the deal for the land now home to Hotel Zero Degrees Danbury, a 114-room boutique hotel that opened in November 2016. It is the third of its kind, after similar properties in Stamford and Norwalk, developed by RMS Companies and Greenwich Hospitality Group.

Meanwhile, two independent hotels in the town of Fairfield have reclaimed some local history and flair. Hotel Hi-Ho, with 40 rooms, and the Circle Hotel, with 80, completed their full renovations this fall, a major upgrade from their 1950s-era origins. The hotels have come fully on line recently, but they continued to host beachgoers, those driving between New York and Boston and people visiting the town’s two universities during the three-year renovations.

Still ahead: MGM Resorts International’s $675 million waterfront casino and entertainment complex planned for Bridgeport. Slated for the Steelpointe Harbor area, it could boost  supply by another 300 hotel rooms.

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