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Amid a fair breeze, the Westin launches

Market's strength extends far beyond convention rooms

Like a schooner unfurling its sails into a strong breeze, the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel -- the Hub's biggest new hotel in 22 years -- opened yesterday to a robust and growing local hotel market.

Both downtown and throughout the metropolitan market, hotel occupancy rates have been climbing steadily over the last two years, and room rates are surging. For the first four months of this year, 69.5 percent of available hotel rooms in downtown Boston and areas near Logan International Airport were booked. That's up 4 percentage points from a year earlier, according to Smith Travel Research Inc. , a Tennessee market research and consulting firm that tracks the hotel industry.

Average downtown room bills have soared nearly $25 a night since 2004, to $165.56 in the first third of this year compared to the same period two years earlier, Smith data show. And those numbers come from what is typically the slowest season for lodging in Boston, the lull before college graduations and the summer-autumn influx of visitors.

At the 793-room Westin Boston Waterfront, adjacent to the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, 83 percent of rooms are sold for the next two months, according to Joseph Fallon , head of the investment group that built the hotel. Referring to Westin parent Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., the global hotel chain, Fallon said, ``It's the highest rate ever for a Starwood opening on any hotel they've ever opened, a huge milestone."

Although the Westin was developed chiefly as the headquarters hotel for the convention center, one indication of the strength of the city's hotel market is that for the first year of operations, Westin general manager David Connor estimates that at least 40 percent of booked guests will be business and leisure travelers who have no connection with convention center events. Rooms were going for $299 last night, but prices may ease in coming weeks.

Andrea Drewes , a business development executive with the L'Oreal Group who promotes its Matrix line of hair-care chains, was one of the first guests to book a room in person yesterday afternoon. Drewes is planning a harbor cruise next month for 150 hairdressers to promote a new hair product, Logics DNA, and wanted to move her reservation from the Westin at Copley Place to the new hotel.

``We want something that's within walking distance of the waterfront, so the location here is ideal," she said. Looking around the stone- and walnut wood-trimmed lobby, which features dozens of faux birch trees in planters, she added, ``This is a spectacular property."

Gloria C. Larson , chairwoman of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, said that while convention officials are pleased to finally have a hotel directly connected to the 500,000-square-foot center, she also expects the Westin to do brisk business with guests like Drewes.

``This is going to be such a popular hotel, clearly for the convention center, but also for the business traveler who wants to be eight minutes from the airport, and the vacationing family who wants to have a tremendous view of our newly cleaned-up harbor," Larson said at its official ceremony. The event was also attended by Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and civic and business leaders.

Located at the corner of Summer and D streets on the South Boston Waterfront, near the interchange of the Massachusetts Turnpike extension to Logan International Airport, the Weston is expected to attract visitors who do business in Boston's Financial District, a 10-minute walk away. It is the second major hotel in the developing waterfront area -- the 427-room Boston Seaport Hotel opened in 1998.

A long block from the convention center on Congress Street, a 438-room Marriott Hotel is under construction and set to open in 2008. MCCA executive director James E. Rooney said the area could support up to 4,000 hotel rooms, without affecting the rest of the 21,000-room Boston-Cambridge hotel market.

After booming through most of the 1990s, Boston's hotel business hit a rough patch when the Internet website boom collapsed in 2000. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, put a further chill on the business-travel market. Throughout the metro area, hotel occupancy fell from 75.6 percent in 2000 to 60.4 percent in 2003, Smith Travel data show.

But business has been crawling back, with the industry posting about a 5 percent gain during the last three years. Hotels got a boost from the 2004 Democratic National Convention and the opening of the convention center, which is on track to generate more than 320,000 hotel-room stays in the year beginning July 1. Five more hotels with a total of over 1,400 rooms are under construction in Boston.

``Boston had the double-whammy of 9-11 and the tech bubble burst, and will not be back to pre-9/11 levels until next year at the earliest in terms of occupancy," said Patrick Ford , president of Lodging Econometrics, a Portsmouth, N.H., consulting and research firm. ``But Boston has been doing very well recently, and I'm encouraged by what I see. The convention center is a whole catalyst for opening up a new part of Boston and a whole new market."

Peter J. Howe can be reached at howe@globe.com.

 
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