Vancouver Island Conference Centre in downtown Nanaimo.

Vancouver Island Conference Centre in downtown Nanaimo.

Nanaimo hoteliers doubt estimates on conference business

NANAIMO – The city will seek verification and clarification about actual numbers of conference delegates.

A conference centre hotel feasibility study, rather than provide answers, has raised questions.

The City of Nanaimo will seek verification and clarification about actual numbers of conference delegates after it was alerted to irregularities in the figures presented in a study prepared by CBRE Hotels and tabled in May.

Hotel operators spoke at Monday’s council meeting at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre, raising doubts about the volume of conference centre delegates making overnight stays in the city. Numbers provided by conference centre management don’t jive with hoteliers’ estimates.

The feasibility study noted 14,888 room nights generated in 2015, but Dan Brady, chairman of the Nanaimo Hospitality Association, said hotel operators put that figure closer to 4,000.

Henry Traa, general manager of the Coast Bastion Hotel, said he believes the conference centre generated 2,000 overnight stays at his hotel.

“If my owner saw these numbers, they’re going to say, ‘Henry, why are they not staying with you?” Traa said. “I have to know where these 12,000 went and we need backup for that. We just can’t have this as a guessing game that you can go around, throw numbers around and we’re all going to go home and let somebody build a hotel with those numbers.”

Hotel operators said they brought their concerns to councillors on three previous occasions before Monday’s delegation of Brady, Traa and Grand Hotel owner Ashwak Sirri.

They expressed concern about the study’s findings on lost conferences. The study cited conference centre reports of 3,700 overnight delegate stays lost each year due to a lack of an attached hotel.

Traa said he was approached for about five requests for proposals for conference centre room rates in 2015. Brady said it was a long time since he’d been asked for an RFP at the Howard Johnson Harbourside Hotel and Sirri said it’s been years since her hotel has been invited to make an RFP.

“I can tell you our occupancy rate is way below the Coast hotel and if our rooms are sitting empty, where are those delegates that are needing the rooms that we have not been able to meet as a city?” she asked.

Traa said “we can use our imagination” and work with private bus companies, for example, to better utilize hotels like the Grand for conference centre business.

“I’ve been here 11 months now, I’ve never been in a meeting where we all got together and said, ‘look, we’re going to lose this convention. What are we going to do to save it?’” he said.

The mayor and every councillor at the meeting expressed concern with the numbers in the study.

Coun. Jim Kipp said he’s “disappointed that those figures are so erroneous” and Coun. Wendy Pratt said it’s incumbent on the city to find out why.

Coun. Ian Thorpe said he didn’t want the report revised, because that would imply that the city didn’t get the answer it was looking for the first time.

“I want accuracy, and so I want to hear from the writers of the report, how they arrived at their numbers and certainly input from the hospitality association here in terms of what they think the numbers should be and let’s sort out the truth,” Thorpe said.

Denise Tacon, general manager of the conference centre, told the News Bulletin that CBRE was provided with a complete listing of the facility’s bookings for purposes of the study. She said she was aware of some discrepancy in estimates of overnight stays, but “certainly not to that degree, by any stretch.”

She said there’s always going to be some ambiguity about where delegates stay.

“Often if they don’t necessarily want that particular rate for a group, they may go under, say, a government rate or a rack rate or book alternately in a hotel or motel that isn’t part of the particular group block. There’s also a lot to be said for [bed-and-breakfasts] and a lot to be said for Airbnb, which has captured a tremendous amount of market share,” Tacon said.

She said the conference centre “can be better” at trying to track delegates’ overnight stays.

“We certainly haven’t asked the hotels to provide us that information in the past. I know that we had talked about it and I’m sure there’ll be more appetite for that now,” Tacon said.

Council unanimously supported Coun. Diane Brennan’s motion to refer the feasibility study back to staff for verification and clarification through discussion with stakeholders.