- Associated Press - Friday, March 18, 2016

MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) - Only three months in, the city’s most recent major investment to the downtown corridor already seems to be bringing hundreds of people to Muncie that otherwise might never have visited.

The Courtyard Muncie hotel has been completely sold out at least twice since opening in December 2015 and has seen impressive booking numbers throughout its first three months, according to Laura Koenker, general manager for the hotel.

The six-story, full-service lodging structure has, like most hotels, seen some fluctuation in bookings since opening, but is outperforming initial expectations, Koenker said.

“We are really exceeding (expectations) already,” she said. “There have been several relatively large conventions that have chosen to come (to Muncie) since we opened, so I think we’re really doing well.”

The relationship between the hotel, convention center, downtown businesses and the visitors bureau has also opened opportunities for booking non-convention events, such as weddings and community activities, though Koenker said a majority of those staying at Courtyard are associated with events scheduled at Horizon

“We’ve had a few weddings and other events where guests are staying with us,” she said. “A large portion of those who stay with us are here for business or (something) happening at the convention center.”

Since January, at least 1,200 people attending convention center events - including more than 500 people participating in last weekend’s East Central Indiana American Poolplayers Association event - have lodged in the downtown hotel, according to data provided by the Horizon Convention Center.

Hundreds more people are expected to attend events on the docket for the coming months as well, according to Joann McKinney, president and chief executive officer for the facility.

This count doesn’t include events like wedding receptions, community activities (such as Rialzo) or banquets, all of which have also seen a boost since the hotel opened, McKinney said.

“We have been hearing from people … from groups that frankly had no interest in (the facility) before the hotel opened,” she said. “We certainly have more going on now than we did before (the hotel opened). We’re really starting to bring in new people every day.”

At least a dozen new conventions and events have committed to using Horizon at some point during the next 18 months, McKinney said. These activities will account for nearly 1,800 attendees and more than 1,000 room nights at the adjoining hotel. Whether this pattern will continue in years to come is still unknown, although McKinney said many have started to take notice of the differences between the Courtyard and other hotels in the region.

“It’s certainly an advantage having a hotel connected to the convention center, or even adjacent to the building,” she said. “I think that’s a major draw for us as a facility … to have a place right next door for people to stay.”

Jim Mansfield, executive director of the Muncie Visitors Bureau, said the city’s tourism office has seen a remarkable increase in information requests since the hotel’s opening.

“We’ve had a lot of interest lately, for sure,” Mansfield said. “In addition to groups coming to us, we’re really going out and bidding on more events to bring to town.”

While he declined to say what kinds of events the visitor’s bureau was bidding on, Mansfield did say they were as far out as 2021.

“We are going to continue bringing in new things … new opportunities for the area,” Mansfield said.

Sporting events are also bringing people to the Courtyard - both local events and those taking place in Indianapolis.

Ball State University athletic opponents - as well as those who are in Muncie on other university-related business - often opt to stay at the hotel versus elsewhere around town, according to Mansfield. Many opponents of both the men’s and women’s teams at Ball State will stay in a Muncie hotel at least one night as part of their travel.

“I’d say 90 percent, if not 100 percent, of the basketball teams’ opponents since late December stayed there,” he said. “I imagine many of the football teams that will play here next season are also looking to the hotel for accommodations.”

Mansfield said when space allows, the fans of those teams will often try to stay in the same hotel for convenience purposes.

When it comes to large-scale events, such as the Final Four, Super Bowl - the next time Indianapolis could host would be 2021 or later - and the Indianapolis 500, major metropolitan hotels sell out quickly, meaning many have to seek lodging accommodations out of town.

“We have people who are staying with us ahead of the (May 29) Indy 500 event,” Koenker said. “That’s not surprising when you consider how close we are to a major city that hosts those kinds of big-name events.”

The entirety of downtown is in heavy growth mode, particularly now that the hotel’s construction is complete.

Thr3e Wise Men opened alongside the Marriott in December and has seen a large amount of success in its own right already, both as a result of the partnership and for its unique offerings, according to John Benjamin, president of operations for the restaurant’s parent company Pots & Pans.

“This isn’t your typical hotel and we’re not your typical downtown restaurant,” Benjamin said. “I’d say 70 to 80 percent of our business isn’t hotel-related, but we’re still seeing a lot of people who come in when they’re visiting town for a (day or two).”

But the Scotty’s Brewhouse spin-off isn’t alone in benefiting from the hotel’s success, according to Vicki Veach, executive director of the Muncie Downtown Development Partnership.

“We’ve seen a lot of businesses downtown that have gained new business with this (investment in the area),” Veach said. “It’s really helping everyone get more business.”

Ahead of Muncie Gras, which is Saturday, March 19, Veach said some people are looking at the hotel as a place to stay in order to further enjoy themselves.

“When you have events and a hotel within walking distance of each other, I think some (correlation) is to be expected,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of people there now, but many of our vendors and performers are staying at the hotel.”

Deanna Pucciarelli, professor of hospitality management at Ball State University, said she expects the hotel to continue to be a driving factor in downtown growth in the coming years.

“There are all these plans in trying to develop the downtown, and certainly the Marriott plays a role in those plans,” Pucciarelli said. “I think it’s going to be a (staple) for downtown moving forward.”

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Source: The (Muncie) Star Press, http://tspne.ws/1TRLdVU

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