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In Need of a Place to Stay

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 19, 2007

Washington's convention center has exhibit halls, meeting rooms and restaurants. What it doesn't have is an adjoining headquarters hotel -- and that, center officials say, is a central reason it has failed to draw more big conventions and shows.

With convention attendance decreasing and convention-booked hotel rooms fewer than predicted, politicians, developers and tourism officials are eager to move ahead with plans to build a 1,400-room hotel, the biggest in the city, connected by a tunnel to the convention center.

"Every day there's not a shovel in the ground is costing us business," said William A. Hanbury, president and chief executive of the Washington, D.C., Convention & Tourism Corp., who estimates that the lack of a hotel has cost more than $200 million in convention trade.

A headquarters hotel has not been a panacea in cities such as Baltimore that are struggling to draw lucrative conventions. But that has not resulted in any second-guessing about plans for the Washington hotel, which is being developed by Marriott International of Bethesda, Quadrangle Development of the District and RLJ Development, also in Bethesda and headed by Black Entertainment Television founder Robert L. Johnson.

Nevertheless, the plans, in the works for the past six years, have been beset by numerous delays caused by city bureaucracy, a tough-negotiating landowner and the desire of the developers to be sure they get a deal that makes economic sense for them.

At this point, no one is predicting the project will be scrapped. But it is a complex deal, with numerous players and a tight downtown location at Ninth Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW. Some of the sticking points include approvals to close alleys, getting changes in zoning and meeting requirements to preserve historic buildings.

And there is the issue of how many rooms will be dedicated to the convention center's needs.

RLJ officials say that even though 35 to 40 percent of the hotel's bookings -- or, as people in the tourism trade put it, the number of heads on beds -- will likely come from the convention center, hotel managers want to be assured that they can actively pursue plenty of non-convention travelers, so they can still make money if the convention business lags.

But convention center officials say they need a guarantee that the big conventions, crucial to the center's success, can get blocks of rooms on the dates they want.

Control of room rights "is a key operating decision," Johnson said. For example, if Congress is in session on a Monday or Tuesday in October, "we may not need a lot of convention-generated business then," said Thomas J. Baltimore Jr., president of RLJ Development. The executives said they want flexibility to schedule conventions later in the week, when things may be slower.

"Somehow we're not communicating on the specific issues in a way that can get us to a workable agreement," Johnson said. "We're not walking away from this project at all. We just want to get this done as quickly as possible."

He and J.W. "Bill" Marriott Jr., chairman and chief executive of Marriott, recently met with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to try to get his attention on the project.

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