Here's a sneak peek from atop new 28-story Hilton Downtown hotel tower
When the Greater Columbus Convention Center broke ground on a publicly funded 28-story Hilton Hotel tower in August 2019, the economy was doing well and the project's future couldn't have looked brighter.
But several months later, the convention center would begin to witness the crumbling of its business model in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down travel and public gatherings and put its long-stable revenue streams on life-support.
Yet through it all the hotel continued to slowly rise on the Columbus skyline, a leap of faith for the future. Today, its concrete frame stands largely completed.
On the still open-air top floors, where three lonely cables are the only thing between a visitor and High Street hundreds of feet below, a stiff December breeze blew through the construction zone.
To the west, Nationwide Arena, Huntington Park and the new Lower.com Field could be seen sitting in sequence: one, two, three. To the north, the view along High Street going away from Downtown through the Short North toward Ohio State University spreads out — one that guests will enjoy from an outdoor patio restaurant and bar that will open late next year after the tower is completed.
The chilly interior spaces were a hive of activity, with hundreds of workers filing into rumbling exterior elevators that carry them up to fit out the concrete spaces with windows, electrical wiring, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, escalators and elevators. It all has to be done by late next summer.
When the hotel is completed next year, it will combine with the publicly owned/privately managed Hilton connected across High Street to form Ohio's first 1,000-room hotel. Th convention center is starting to see the green shoots of a travel recovery that officials are confident will continue to grow through next year.
"We think it will be done right when the market is back," said Don Brown, executive director of the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority, which owns and operates the convention center.
Despite stubborn COVID variants that show no sign of waiving a white flag, convention center officials speak fairly confidently about the future because conventions typically are booked far in advance. And next year year's calendar is substantially set.
They predict business will return almost to pre-COVID numbers, including the payday "citywide conventions," those that book 1,000 or more rooms at two or more hotels, while simultaneously booking meeting, dining and exhibit rooms in the convention center's 373,000 square feet of potentially contiguous exhibit space and 75 "breakout" meeting rooms.
"As we look at kind of the landscape for where we are, we have 25 'citywide' conventions booked for 2022, and that puts us right pretty much where we were pre-COVID, when we were averaging somewhere between 25 and 30," said John Page, the convention center's general manager.
Having the new hotel tower open by next summer will only help attract more future business into 2023 and beyond, said Christian Coffin, general manager of the Hilton Columbus Downtown.
Throw in an "easy airport" to navigate, nearby sporting and concert venues and the walkable Short North, with its mix of dining and night life, and Coffin said Columbus creates a pleasant overall experience for would-be convention-goers to which groups will want to return.
Columbus competes with about a dozen other "second-tier" markets for conventions, such as Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Nashville, Charlotte and Pittsburgh. But the opening of the new Hilton tower "will allow us to punch up in our weight class," Page said.
"We're not going to compete all the time with the Chicagos, and Las Vegases and Orlandos, but every now and then we're going to sneak a punch," Page said.
The new tower's sprawling entry lobby will be open to the center, where convention-goers will be able to stroll in past the check-in counters to overlook a surface-level restaurant with a wood-fired oven that will face out on High Street.
A series of escalators will motor guests up to meeting rooms and two major ballrooms - one 15,000 square feet squarely atop another of 10,000 square feet. The upper one will be the largest hotel ballroom in Columbus, officials say, with an adjacent entry section cantilevered out in a sweeping arch several floors above the hotel's main entrance.
The two new ballrooms will add to the current 12,000-square-foot one directly across High Street in the existing Hilton hotel, connected by an enclosed pedestrian bridge.
Above the largest new ballroom will be a "green roof," where the hotel envisions growing its own vegetables and other plants.
Dumbwaiters and special service elevators will ferry food from a lower-level kitchen up to the ballrooms and breakout rooms for dining.
Sections of the upper floors can be closed off to form clusters of hotel sleeping rooms for large families or sports teams attending tournaments, Coffin said.
"This all creates a campus that makes it more attractive to major 'citywides,' makes us more competitive to other cities," Coffin said.
The optimism about the future is striking compared to the actual financials from last year, when the pandemic basically pulled the plug on convention center operations.
It was effectively shut down, at one point converted into an emergency COVID ward that was ultimately never needed by the state. It also was used to provide spacious courtrooms to keep Franklin County Municipal Court's — traffic and eviction — operating safely under new social-distancing restrictions.
Rent paid for use of the building, plus millions in federal COVID relief money the city of Columbus and Franklin County directed to the convention center, have helped keep operations going.
Revenue from hotel operations hit single percentage digits early last year compared to healthy 2019, Coffin said.
"For a while it was a one step forward, two back type of thing," Coffin said. "I mean, we've all been through it."
In 2019, the center was "expected to out-perform prior years" in 2020, and end it netting $1 million in operating income. But instead, it ran a $4 million operating deficit, its state financial audit says.
The center counts on a thriving travel and entertainment economy to service its just-under $800 million in outstanding bond debt, with over half of that related to building the combined Hilton Columbus Downtown, of which the existing 532-room tower west of High Street opened in October 2012. Operating revenue from the hotel and lease payments from two other hotels, the adjacent Hyatt Regency and Drury Inn, plunged almost 93% in 2020 year of year, the state audit shows.
And an even more important source of revenue was also getting clobbered.
To pay debt service on that portfolio of bonds, the convention center relies mostly on a 4% Franklin County hotel "bed tax" and another .9% city of Columbus bed tax, paid by customers booking rooms. That revenue plunged more than 60% during 2020, according to the center's state financial audit.
Combined, total revenue fell by about two-thirds, to $13.2 million, in 2020.
The convention center's financial performance is of no small interest to the city of Columbus and Franklin County. Through a series of deals, some dating back decades, the two government entities could be on the hook to backstop bond payments if needed. But Brown has said that tens of millions of dollars in bond-payment reserve funds make such a scenario highly unlikely.
The audited 2021 financials aren't due out until next year. But Page said the center's current state of business is at about 60% pre-COVID revenues.
While that is great compared to the pandemic's peak devastation, it would nevertheless have been greeted as almost catastrophic in 2019.
In January 2021, Hilton revenue was at 17% of 2019 figures. But by June it hit 50%, and "then we got up as far as 70% in September and October, and that will continue into the first quarter" of 2022, Coffin said.
"So by the time we get to the third quarter ... we should be back to about 95%, 98% of 2019, and then all of a sudden we've got the new building coming on," Coffin said.
As convention officials anxiously await New Year's Day, when they will close the books on a still-depressed 2021 and open them on what is promising to be a much more healthy upcoming year, the buzz of the new hotel tower is the wind at their backs.
"As we look toward '22, we see that (convention center revenues) number continue to grow, as we kind of get further away from where this pandemic may lie," Page said. Going into 2023 and beyond, he said he hopes the convention center will continue "to be able to facilitate that trajectory that we were on before COVID."
The convention center is now in the stage of putting the final touches on what each hotel room will look like, and has a showroom with different mockups of bedrooms, bathrooms, desks and wallpaper.
Each room will feature a framed picture of a cartoon dog by Columbus native journalist and artist James Thurber, over his saying: "A sound creature in a crazy world."