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Dallas Convention Center Hotel Faces First Big Test

On the Omni Skybridge, preparing for ALA
On the Omni Skybridge, preparing for ALA

The new Omni Convention Center hotel in downtown Dallas is ready for its first really-big event. KERA's BJ Austin reports the first large convention attracted by the hotel opens Thursday.

Dallas Omni Hotel employees move tables, chairs, and coffee cups as they get meeting rooms ready. The Omni is hotel “headquarters” for members of the American Library Association: more than 16 thousand delegates here through Monday, and expected to pump six to eight million dollars into the local economy.

Jones: The American Library Association made a commitment to Dallas, but said they wouldn't fulfill it until we had a convention center hotel attached.

That’s Phillip Jones, president of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Jones: So, they're our first major citywide that's here as a result specifically of the attached convention center hotel.

The Dallas Omni is attached to the Convention Center by a 100-foot skywalk that links the second floors of each building. Phillip Jones says an attached hotel allows the seamless access to exhibits and seminars that many meeting planners require. Ed Netzhammer, Omni Managing Director says the American Library Association wants the convenience, plus the extra meeting space the hotel can provide.

Netzhammer: To come to town, we had to give them 900 rooms a night. So, they have just about the whole hotel. We have 26 functions in our meeting rooms going on at the same time. They really have us to capacity.

Netzhammer is confident the new hotel can handle it. He says it's got all the "bells and whistles" -- especially technology.

Netzhammer: From my iPad that's sitting there on my desk, I could go into a program, find a meeting room drop the screen and the projector and have it all ready for you in a meeting room down the hallway.

Every inch of the Omni is WiFi'd. In the rooms, the electricity is turned on by the key card upon arrival and turns off when the guest leaves the room. Small LED lights provide a path at night to the bathroom where there are TV's embedded in the mirrors.

The hotel’s Netzhammer says 2012 bookings have zoomed past projections.

Netzhammer: For 2012, when we flipped the year on December 31st, 130,430 rooms, group rooms on the books.

Netzhammer says some of those numbers are driven by a surge in short-term bookings – individuals and small to medium groups. The hotel filled-up twice in December.

Netzhammer: The amount of those short term groups that are booking is a complete surprise to me and I’ve been doing this for 30 years.

The Dallas Omni may be the exception, not the rule. Fran Brasseux, vice president of Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International – based in Virginia – says much of the industry is still limping out of the recession.

Brasseux: Boy, in need of a band aid, I would say. We have had a very difficult last two years, and we have a good pace going for 2012. It has to deliver, but it’s looking better.

Brasseux worries the economic crisis in Europe could hurt international meeting attendance and tourism in the U.S. this year.

Critics of a city-owned convention center hotel worried that taxpayers would be on the hook for 500 million dollars in bonds to build the hotel if the operator – Omni – failed to fill the rooms. The city must make annual debt payments on the hotel: 22 million to 37 million toward the end of the bonds’ 30-year life. If things go wrong, there’s a reserve fund of about 40 million “tax” dollars the city could use.

The Omni’s Ed Netzhammer is not worried about that. He says projections are right on track to meet the city’s debt payments – maybe even exceed that number the first year.

mni executives deliver the hotel’s first progress report and projections to officials at Dallas City Hall Thursday.

In February, the Omni will be one of several hotels hosting 38 thousand people for the National Cheerleaders Association.

Former KERA reporter BJ Austin spent more than 25 years in broadcast journalism, anchoring and reporting in Atlanta, New York, New Orleans and Dallas. Along the way, she covered Atlanta City Hall, the Georgia Legislature and the corruption trials of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.