Which downtown hotel study should you trust?

The current controversy over the need for a new hotel supporting the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center reminds me of a debate that took place back when the center was about to be built on pilings driven into Lake Monona. A small group protested that this would disturb the lake bottom, destroy fish, and wreak environmental havoc. The builders presented studies done by an environmental engineering firm that assured the protesters that this would not be the case.

Local media, in the time-honored journalistic practice of presenting “both sides,” quoted both groups in news accounts. But the impression this gave to readers was that both groups, the engineers and the environmentalists, should be given equal weight and that there was a real environmental danger present. In fact, the local environmentalists had minimal basis for their concerns, while the engineering firm had a respected national reputation.

I see something similar occurring with two other studies that are now being presented. One, by Johnson Consulting, shows the need for a hotel to maximize Monona Terrace business. The other, by University of Texas at San Antonio professor Heywood Sanders, contends that it is unnecessary. “Balanced” newspaper accounts could easily leave the general public with the impression that these two opposing points of view have equal credibility. I’m not criticizing the press. They are presenting both sides — just the facts without interpretation.

I haven’t studied in detail all aspects of the reports; few people have. But my impression is that the study favoring the hotel is considerably more credible than the one opposing it. I’m also told that those who have thoroughly dived into both don’t give much credibility to the Sanders study. You can see for yourself and let me know what you think:

(Johnson Consulting study)

(Sanders study)

Sanders’ study looked at past conventions and concluded that current meeting room facilities are adequate for the smaller and medium-sized conventions Madison hosts. But that’s precisely the point: Our conventions tend to be smaller because that’s all we can accommodate based on available hotel rooms. Monona Terrace might have the opportunity to host a group of 1,000 but lose that opportunity because of a lack of hotel space. Yes, it might pull in a group of 500, and thus keep its record of excellent utilization. But “underutilization” would be the correct term for a building that could have accommodated 1,000 but had to settle for 500.



There is room for differing points of view here. Existing hotels are understandably concerned about new competition. Long term, the expectation is that “rising tides lift all ships,” but even the Johnson study shows existing hotels will take a hit for a few years after a new one is built. Thereafter, the increased business will be good for all hotels.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’m a past chair of the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau, a supporter of more convention hotel rooms. While in that position I did see firsthand the frustration of GMCVB salespeople who were out in the marketplace selling our city, only to lose business when sufficient hotel space wasn’t available.

A holiday gift idea

My dear sister Cathy drew my name in our family gift exchange. She emailed me from Albuquerque asking what I wanted for Christmas. Here is my reply:

“Hi, Cath. You inquired about my Christmas gift. Honestly, I have more than I need of everything. If you find some little fun thing you think I’d appreciate, fine. But I’d really rather see you make a gift to The Salvation Army or other similar charity. The people they serve need lots of things, and I don’t. I’m serious. Love, Brother Bill”

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