With Seattle hotel occupancies still hovering down 20 percent or so from this time last year, why is Bret Matteson such a happy guy? After years with hospitality industry giants such as Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton, Matteson now is vice president of Seattle-based Columbia Hospitality, a management and consulting business that oversees Bell Harbor International Conference Center, the World Trade Center Seattle, Pier 66 Cruise Terminal space, the Cruise Terminals of America business line, Aljoya Conference Center of Seattle, The Resort at Deer Harbor, Friday Harbor House, and The Inn at Langley.
He's smiling because, despite the Northwest's meeting doldrums, business is looking good for Columbia's properties--in fact, Aljoya is out-performing the marketplace. "It's on fire," he says, adding that Aljoya is seeing 30 percent more in full revenues than it had this time last year--and beating projected 2002 revenues by about 25 percent. Some of Columbia's other properties are also doing better than, or at least equal to, last year. "Even the properties that are off are only off by 5 [percent] to 8 percent."
He credits Columbia properties' success during these tough times to one simple fact: "We're the Gumbies of the hospitality industry. Columbia is staffed with a lot of people who, like myself, come from a corporate hospitality background and wanted to contribute their talents to growing an entrepreneurial company. We're able to react quickly, to be agile." It also benefits from having a built-in advisory board: Six years ago it was spun off from its sister company, Columbia Resource Group, a 23-year-old meeting and event planning firm also based in Seattle.
In addition to property management, Columbia hedges its corporate bets with a consulting arm that performs feasibility and economic studies for cities and private developers. One big project under way is the development of the Washington Mutual Leadership Center at Cedarbrook, scheduled to open in December. While its 110 guest rooms and 12,000 square feet of meeting space will be used primarily by Washington Mutual for training and manager-development programs, it will be open to other meetings when not being used by its corporate owners.
Columbia is facing the same challenges that all hospitality industry members face, namely a increased drive-in market, shorter lead times, reduced international attendance, and shorter meetings. But instead of combating the trends by slashing prices, as so many hotels have done, Columbia properties focus on providing value-adds.
"We're trying to stay away from discounting," he says, adding that hotelier friends are finding it tough to drive rates back up once they've knocked them down. "Instead, we'll add extras to our standard complete meeting package, say upgrade a standard break to include an ice cream sundae station, or throw in additional AV equipment, labor, and services. We also stay flexible on our CMPs: While they're great one-stop-shopping tools, we'll slice and dice it any way we need to to keep our customers happy." In addition, he says, his conference centers will work with charities to acquire the donations needed to support their events.
"Life is good, but we're constantly re-examining how we can do things better, be better allies for our guests and planners, and try to line up as many strategic partnerships as we can." For example, Bell Harbor is holding onto some of that faltering international market with a built-in simultaneous interpretation system.
The local market has always been a strong one for Columbia properties: Bell Harbor, which is owned by the city of Seattle, gets lots of government and association business. Aljoya has long been a hot spot for companies such as Washington Mutual, Microsoft, and local school districts. "We have longstanding relationships with people in our back yard. We keep nurturing those relationships and making sure we're adding value so they don't have to think twice about finding an alternative to our properties." For example, while many properties are putting facility improvement plans on hold for the duration of the economic downturn, Columbia is keeping up reinvestment in its properties, including a $150,000 upgrade to Bell Harbor's sound system.
And the company is not pokey about scouting up new opportunities, either. Next up on Columbia's plate: bringing a training and development manager in house at Bell Harbor and the World Trade Center. "Because our best customers are focusing their efforts and dollars on training and development, we're doing the same," says Matteson. "One of our goals for next year is to launch, as an outside revenue stream, a training and development service at our facilities."