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Steady business for Connecticut Convention and Sports Bureau

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Business has been steady for the Connecticut Convention and Sports Bureau for the past few years — something that its president, H. Scott Phelps, understandably views with pride, especially in light of the fact that the group is in “a constant state of uncertainty” over its funding.

H. Scott Phelps and Robert Murdock

“That is, and has been, our number one challenge,” said Phelps of the official sales and marketing organization for the meetings and sports markets statewide. “It makes it very difficult to plan how and what we do.”

While the group is scheduled to receive the same amount for this fiscal year (July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019) as it did the last — $450,000 — Phelps noted that that number has yet to be confirmed. A 501(c)6 public-private partnership funded by dues from members and by the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development and the Connecticut Office of Tourism, the bureau is still waiting to see what effect — if any — the state’s slashing of the tourism budget from $6.4 million to $4.1 million this year will have.

“There could be additional reductions in our funding,” Phelps said. “But we have been getting terrific private sector support — well over 40 percent of our annual budget.”

In the meantime, the group estimates that events it booked in the last fiscal year will total nearly $54.2 million in spending by convention, meeting and sports events attendees during their visits to the state, generating over $3.1 million in Connecticut taxes. In addition, more than 17,246 Connecticut jobs in the hospitality industry are supported by those events as a result of those bookings.

Total lead room nights in fiscal 2018 were over 292,000, compared with over 296,000 in fiscal ’17, while definite room nights — those actually confirmed — were 66,926 in fiscal ’18 versus 66,786 the previous fiscal year. Definite bookings by corporations and associations were up 20 percent, Phelps noted.

In addition, he said that the group generated about $6.94 in sales tax for every $1 it spent to recruit events to the state last year — down from the previous year’s $7.52 but still significant, he said.

On the sports side, the big news was the announcement last year that Connecticut will host seven NCAA events, including in basketball, lacrosse, golf and ice hockey, through 2022. The first, the Division 1 Men’s Ice Hockey Regional at the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, took place March 23-25.

Elsewhere in Fairfield County, Trumbull BMX hosted a USA BMX National Championship Series event June 22-24. While some 1,200 to 1,500 bicycle motocross competitors were expected and more than 2,500 hotel room nights booked — with an economic impact estimated of $1.9 million — Robert Murdock, convention and sports bureau’s director of national accounts and director of sports marketing, said the event “ended up way beyond anyone’s expectations.”

While final figures were not yet available, Murdock said, “BMX was very pleasantly surprised, as was the town.”

The next major sporting event is one of the nation’s high-profile fast-pitch softball tournaments, as the United States Specialty Sports Association hosts the 2018 Northeast National Championship for 12UB, 14UB and 16UB Divisions in East Hartford and Southington July 23-28. More than 800 players on 70 teams from nine states will compete, and over 2,500 family, supporters and tournament staff will attend.

Murdock projected that the event would generate $2,103,605 for the Greater Hartford region and that spending by visitors would support 427 tourism-related jobs, resulting in $125,964 for the state in sales tax.

The bureau is also focusing more on growing its reach outside of Greater Hartford. “Four years ago we only did a small fraction of our business in Fairfield and Litchfield,” Phelps said. “That’s no longer the case.”

“We’re meant to be a statewide organization and we’re taking that to heart,” Murdock said. “We continue to do a solid amount of business with religious groups, who tend to look for smaller events in a single hotel rather than a convention center space. We’re making a push to bring more of them to Fairfield County.”

Expected to play a part in the effort to grow business in the county is Stamford Director of Economic Development Thomas Madden, who in June was elected assistant treasurer of the bureau’s board of directors.

Talk of hotels and convention centers inevitably led to Bridgeport and the $675 million waterfront casino proposed by MGM Resorts International. In addition to the attraction of the casino itself, current plans call for a 300-room hotel, a 700-seat theater and a “flex” meeting space.

“We’re definitely interested in what kind of meeting space they’ll have,” Phelps said. “Their casino in Springfield (Massachusetts) is a much different model and is designed to be a convention center/entertainment spot.”

The Springfield MGM, scheduled to open Aug. 24, boasts about 34,000 square feet of meeting space.

Bridgeport still needs to work its way through the approval process by the Connecticut legislature; a particular sticking point has been the state’s exclusive compact with Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, who together have objected to the Bridgeport proposal.

“We work closely with Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods in terms of meetings, conventions and sporting events,” Phelps said. “But we’d be happy to work with that casino as well, no question.”

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