When a Circle K convention came to Wilmington earlier this year, attendees found themselves split between 15 different hotels, even looking to northern Brunswick County for the necessary accommodations.
That conundrum is a good example of how the city’s tourism and convention industries are struggling with the challenges that come with success.
“We have a very, very strong leisure [travel] market nowadays, and it’s growing, which is good for us,” said Kim Hufham, president and CEO of the Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’ve seen our season expanding into October, November, starting as early as March … What is happening is, even though we’ve got a good amount of rooms total downtown [about 800], we just don’t have as many as we need for committable rooms for groups. That’s where we’re running into an issue.”
A downtown hotel can’t commit all of its rooms to one event or group, Hufham said, instead they offer blocks of a certain number for a particular convention.
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo sees the potential for additional hotel rooms that could boost convention needs in property the city is buying at and adjacent to 929 N. Front St., about a six-minute walk from the Wilmington Convention Center on Nutt Street.
In July, the city is expected to close on the $68 million purchase of the property, 12.5 acres that used to hold the headquarters of pharmaceutical firm PPD. The purchase includes a 1,000-space parking deck, 370,000 square feet of office space in 12 stories and two adjoining development tracts.
“There’s a possibility down the road that we could sell off a portion of that [the undeveloped area] maybe for a hotel,” Saffo said. “We do know that there’s a need for more hotel space downtown.”
He said the requirement of a hotel on the tract could be included in a potential request for development proposals.
Saffo cited the Circle K convention as an example but also noted the popularity of the Live Oak Bank Pavilion at Riverfront Park at 10 Cowan St., also next to the former PPD headquarters. The 7,200-person venue, which opened in 2021, includes 2,400 seats and can accommodate 4,800 attendees on the lawn.
“With the popularity of the amphitheater, we’re kind of the victims of our own success there because they have big concerts,” Saffo said.
The city owns the outdoor amphitheater as well as the convention center.
“A lot of people book rooms downtown because they want to stay down there and make a night of it,” Saffo said, “and so sometimes we’re competing with ourselves in that respect.”
The Circle K convention brought nearly 600 people to downtown Wilmington, which is about the size local officials want.
“The groups that we’re currently trying to bring in are between 500 and 750 people so you’re going to need 250 to 300 rooms on peak nights,” Hufham said. “Even using five properties, they’re going to have to give us a pretty good room block in order to accomplish that, and some groups are even larger than that.”
But the gap in rooms is not a deal breaker right now, she said.
“People want to come here. Sometimes we do have to get creative,” Hufham said, such as in the case of the Circle K event. “One of the advantages we do have is people just love the destination. So if we could get in more rooms downtown, then it really just helps us sell the product even more.”