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Room Service: Boise's Burgeoning Business of Putting 'Heads on Beds'

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When Carrie Westergard assumed the post of executive director of the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau—the marketing arm of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce—she asked Boise Valley Economic Partnership Executive Director Clark Krause which high-profile conventions he regularly attended.

"He told me about the International Asset Management Counsel," said Westergard, whose duties include inducing conventions to the Boise area. "That's the VIP group of site-selectors that determine where many of the nation's largest employers should locate or relocate their business operations. But Clark said, 'I don't know if Boise would be ready to host something like that.'"

That was two years ago. Now, after new convention center facilities and several hotels in downtown Boise became reality, Westergard and her team have secured what was considered unattainable: Hosting the people who decide the cities that top-tier companies choose to call home.

"It's a huge deal. Think of that for a minute: This will be a gathering of some of the nation's most influential decision-makers," said Westergard. "Boise will be hosting IMAC in 2020."

Three years may seem a ways off, but it was only three years ago that a study by PKF Consulting asked the question: Why is Boise coming up short when competing for major meetings or conventions such as IMAC? Several months later the answer was made public: The then-inventory of around 10 downtown Boise hotels would soon be woefully inadequate to accommodate even the current number of conventions and meetings.

"In 2015, we hosted 47 conventions—the highest we've ever done. Our goal for 2017 is 55," said Boise Centre Executive Director Pat Rice. "And the growth of demand for hotel rooms continues to increase."

The difference now is practically everything, beginning with the Boise Centre, which will stretch across four structures on three sides of the Grove Plaza: from the existing Boise Centre, across to CenturyLink Arena, to the newly-constructed Boise Centre East (which includes a 14,000-square-foot ballroom), to the new Clearwater Building, which houses 12,500 square feet of additional meeting space. The full concourse should open sometime in mid-March.

"What can we attract now that we couldn't before? Plenty," said Rice. "For starters, we can host two mid-sized conventions or meetings concurrently, particularly in the SMERF categories."

SMERF is the industry acronym for small- to medium-sized "social, military, educational, religious and fraternal" organizations that regularly occupy meeting rooms at the Boise Centre.

"But if you want to talk about a major game-changer for Boise, it will come this June," said Rice. "That's when the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists will be here."

The convention will bring nearly 1,400 attendees, making it the largest convention the Boise Centre has ever hosted. How Boise guaranteed the gathering is a story in itself.

"It all ties back to the LGBT issues that North Carolina has been having," said Rice.

Those "issues" stem from the so-called "bathroom bill," which restricts access to public restrooms based on a person's birth gender, rather than gender identity. The controversy led to several organizations, including the epidemiologist convention slated for this summer, to reconsider doing business with North Carolina.

"They called us last summer," said Westergard. "We ended up competing against Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and we landed it. It's huge for us. At our last count, they'll probably need rooms in 13 different hotels."

Which leads to what else is new in downtown Boise: hotels. There's a new Residence Inn by Marriott nearing completion at the corner of Broad Street and Capitol Boulevard, a Hyatt Place wrapping up construction on 10th Street, a planned Hilton Garden Inn at Front and 13th streets and a just-announced 140-room hotel on Front Street between Fifth and Sixth streets.

The first hotel to swing its doors open in 2017 will be the much-anticipated 112-room boutique Inn at 500 Capitol, at the corner of Capitol Boulevard and Myrtle Street.

"Fifty thousand cars drive by us every day, so we love that corner," said Brian Obie, former mayor of Eugene, Ore. and founder of Obie Development Partners, which owns the Inn at 500 Capitol. "We started eyeing Boise for our hotel three years ago."

Obie opened his flagship hotel, the Inn at the 5th, in Eugene in 2012. He knew he wanted to duplicate his success.

"My grandad said, 'When you get a good horse, you ride it.' So, I said, let's do another one," he said. "We turned to the University of Oregon and asked them to conduct a business analysis. Out of 43 communities, Boise came out on top—even ahead of Eugene. It's that simple. Or maybe, it's that complicated."

Obie said his hotel will feature a roaring fireplace in the lobby and a glass of wine for guests at the front desk, making for an upscale experience.

"It's an interesting demographic that we attract. Many of our visitors will actually be from Boise, celebrating a holiday or anniversary," he said. "At the same time, we do very, very well with the business traveler. We'll have arrangements with Micron, Albertson's and St. Luke's to take care of their needs."

That's music to Westergard's ears.

"Bring it on," she said of a series of hotel openings in the next two years. "Do we need them? Absolutely. Will our conventions, meetings and visitors absorb them? Everything points to 'absolutely.' Our business is to put heads on beds, and that business should get better and better."

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