|Fort Worth hotel changes challenge church assembly|
The Fort Worth (Texas) Convention Center is site of the 2008 United Methodist General Conference, the denomination's top lawmaking body. Delays in downtown hotel construction and renovation have led to late changes in accommodations for delegates and others attending the 10-day event this spring. A UMNS photo courtesy of the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau.
A UMNS Report
By Marta W. Aldrich*
Jan. 18, 2008
With just over three months until The United Methodist Church convenes its worldwide assembly in Fort Worth, Texas, the city's changing downtown hotel landscape is forcing organizers to scramble for rooms to accommodate delegates, church leaders and staff.
The Rev. Alan J. Morrison
"It has been a perfect storm," said the Rev. Alan J. Morrison, business manager for the 2008 General Conference. "The hotel industry in Fort Worth is in total flux."
Despite the challenges, Morrison is confident the housing issues will be settled adequately with the assistance of the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau. Together, they are booking rooms in outlying hotels to accommodate any overflow from downtown Fort Worth. (PDF Map)
"Instead of having five or six hotels downtown with large blocks of rooms as we had hoped, we'll meet our needs with a list of about 20 hotels, including some that aren't downtown and with much smaller blocks of 20, 30 and 40 rooms," Morrison said. "We may have people housed as far as 16 miles away, but we're looking to the next tier down in terms of level of service to try to accommodate people closer."
General Conference is the church's top legislative assembly, held once every four years to set policy for the 11.5 million-member denomination. The 2008 gathering is scheduled for April 23-May 2.
Initially, organizers expected to book 1,500 rooms downtown and within walking distance of the Fort Worth Convention Center, where the assembly is being held. In addition to accommodating the 1,000 delegates, they anticipated housing hundreds of others downtown, including reserve delegates, bishops and staff members for General Conference and church agencies.
Many others involved in the gathering––from choirs to marshals and pages––make their own reservations and are dealing with the same issues. The assembly also draws thousands of United Methodists and other Christians from throughout the world over the course of the 10-day event.
"We expect to see probably 5,000 to 7,000 people easily coming through the Fort Worth Convention Center," said Morrison. "At the 2004 General Conference in Pittsburgh, the bleachers seated 4,000 and they were filled to capacity during the opening worship service."
The housing bureau for General Conference, which is operated by the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau, begins taking reservations from delegates on Jan. 22 via phone, the Internet, fax or mail. Downtown reservations will be booked on a first-come, first serve basis, but priority will be given to international delegates as a matter of hospitality.
"In all, roughly two-thirds of the delegates will be downtown, including all the international delegates and half of the U.S. delegates," said Morrison.
"It has been a perfect storm. The hotel industry in Fort Worth is in total flux."
–The Rev. Alan J. Morrison
Members of the Council of Bishops, the highest ordained leaders in the church, will be housed in the downtown Renaissance Hotel, where they will hold their biannual meeting prior to General Conference. Church agency staff booked through the housing bureau will be placed in outlying hotels.
"People have been very gracious in this whole process," said Morrison, who has sent several e-mails to delegation leaders to keep them abreast of the housing issues. "We've received a number of e-mails thanking us for the work we're doing on their behalf. They are holding us up in prayer as we deal with all of these issues."
'A perfect storm'
The Commission on General Conference, which oversees the assembly planning, initially identified a need for 1,200 rooms in Fort Worth based on its peak needs at the Pittsburgh assembly in 2004.
Because a number of delegations and other groups chose to make their own reservations in Pittsburgh, the commission had booked more rooms than needed there and ended up having to pay a $100,000 contract penalty to one hotel. "But all those who went out of our block last time sought to go in the block this time, and that bumped up the number of rooms needed in Fort Worth to 1,500," said Morrison.
The commission chose Fort Worth in 2002 for the 2008 gathering and, at the time, the outlook for accommodations was rosy. There were already six downtown hotels with more than 1,500 rooms, and another hotel (now the 600-room Omni Hotel project), adjacent to the convention center, was in the planning stages.
When the Commission on General Conference chose Fort Worth in 2002 for the 2008 gathering, the Omni and the Sheraton hotels were scheduled to be open. A UMNS map courtesy of the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Little by little, however, surprises and delays chipped away at the room inventory.
The Omni project hit numerous delays and is now expected to open in late 2008. The Hilton, formerly the Radisson, closed one of its two towers and went from 500 rooms to 296 in 2006. The former Clarion Hotel became Embassy Suites and went from 300 rooms to 156 suites.
Most disappointing, perhaps, was the Fort Worth Plaza, which shut down for renovation in 2006 to reopen as the Sheraton on Feb. 1 of this year. General Conference staff contracted for 375 rooms there but learned just before Christmas that the 435-room Sheraton would not reopen until mid-2008.
"Just in the two and a half years I've been in this position, I've had three hotels that have changed flags and changed the inventory of their rooms available––all of them decreasing," said Morrison. Only the Courtyard by Marriott and the Renaissance Hotel have stayed under contract with General Conference with no changes.
Because of the hotel adjustments, the Commission on General Conference will provide bus transportation from the outlying hotels to the convention center each morning and then back again each evening. This will add an additional expense to the projected $6.6 million cost of the event, which includes $1.4 million for housing and food.
Representatives of the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau said they are working closely with conference organizers to work out the kinks related to housing.
"We are experiencing growing pains right now in Fort Worth, and we're making adjustments."
–Heather Huhn, Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau
"The main thing is that this is not going to have a hugely negative impact on the delegates," said Heather Huhn, convention services manager. "In a convention, a hotel room is used just for a few hours, then you're back in the heart of downtown. When they're downtown, they're going to experience true Fort Worth hospitality."
Huhn said her bureau has been working with other convention planners addressing the same challenges this year in Fort Worth. The American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, with 4,500 attendees and 1,500 rooms on peak, is scrambling for rooms as well for its April 6-12 event.
"We keep joking that this is not our first rodeo," said Huhn. "We are experiencing growing pains right now in Fort Worth, and we're making adjustments. But speaking with meeting planners, I think they come out smiling on the other end. It may not be quite the perfect picture expected initially, but I think the planners we've been working with end up feeling very pleased about the level of hospitality received."
The United Methodist assembly is considered a large citywide convention, she said, but is unique because of its 10-day duration. Its total projected economic impact on Fort Worth is about $12.4 million, according to the bureau.
While the hotel issue has been challenging, Morrison said other logistical arrangements for General Conference are progressing on schedule.
"General Conference is still going to happen in Fort Worth, and I believe the Holy Spirit will be present and moving amongst the body as we conduct the work of the church," he said.
*Aldrich is news editor of United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
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