Trenton Marriott to City: We need more cash now

Trenton City Council members will likely cast a vote tomorrow for what it considers to be the lesser of two evils: give the operators of downtown’s only hotel, The Marriott, its second emergency infusion of cash or watch it close eight days from now.

Under the terms of its 2002 contract with the city, which owns the hotel as a franchisee, Waterford Hotel Group, Marriott’s operator, is allowed to request financial support from council when its coffers sink below $200,000, a point the hotel management group reached early last month. It found itself in the same situation last year, when the city advanced it most of the $500,000 it requested.

Rocky Peterson, attorney for the Lafayette Yard Community Development Corp., an all-volunteer committee that oversees the hotel for the city, told council at a meeting last night, that a decision has to be made soon.

 “There’s a short-term problem that has to be addressed: we have until March 15 (to provide the requested $295,000) or the management company will terminate its agreement,” he explained. “If that happens, Marriott immediately pulls its flag, all employees are terminated and the hotel goes dark immediately.”

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The unpopular demand comes at a precarious time in Waterford’s relationship with the city. In the hotel’s 11 years, the 193-room Trenton Marriott Downtown has rarely turned a profit. With its room and occupancy rates lagging far behind the chain’s national average, neither Waterford nor Marriott will renew its contract when it expires in June. That leaves the city, which pays $1.4 million per year to service the hotel’s construction debt, scrambling to find a successor that can draw the government, corporate and group-leisure business it desperately needs to keep the $60 million hotel afloat.

One solution for the council is to have the city-owned hotel become a franchise of the Parsippany, N.J.-based Wyndham Hotels and Resorts and have the day-to-day management handled by Marshall Hotels & Resorts out of Salisbury, MD.

Sometime after tomorrow’s expected vote on whether to approve more money to keep the Marriott open, council will formally weigh in on the Marshall/Wyndham proposal. Though this partnership will require between $2.5 and $3 million worth of renovations, which might be staggered over one year after opening, its licensing and operations fees will cost far less than those required under the city’s current contract.

Because no contracts have yet been signed with Marshall or Wyndham, Lafayette Yard Vice President Joyce Kersey declined to identify the amount of the savings but says of her anticipated new business partners, “They’re affordable for Trenton if we’re going to have a brand name. We selected the best companies that came to us.”

Lafayette Yard entertained interest from the DoubleTree and Dolce but rejected their advances for fear the affordably-positioned brands wouldn’t help boost Trenton’s already tarnished image as a city beleaguered by poverty, crime and fleeing businesses.

By contrast, the Wyndham will stand as an up-market full-service landmark licensed by Wyndham Hotel Group — parent company to brands like Howard Johnson, Ramada and Days Inn — which boasts the most hotel properties and the largest loyalty program in the world.

Michael Marshall, the president and CEO of the hotel management company Marshall, said the (Wyndham) chain’s extensive loyalty program, which incentivizes members to stay in company properties to earn future free nights elsewhere in the system, could compel overnight visitors to stay in the downtown property rather than at competing hotels in the suburbs. He adds that Wyndham’s headquarters in Parsippany — 55 miles away and closer to Trenton than to any of its other full-service New Jersey properties — could also generate stays and meetings for people working for or doing business with the corporate office.

But what’s the main benefit of bringing the Wyndham to Trenton, according to Marshall? It’s not a Marriott.”I’ve heard that the city loves the hotel but the Marriott doesn’t love the city,” he said. “I think that’s telling.”Marriott has standards you have to live up to no matter what, even if they’re not the best for your community,” he told city council members. Marriott, he said, focuses more on attracting the higher-dollar corporate client over the government business that drives many of the state capital’s overnight stays, he said, “Trenton is not a full-service Marriott market.”

Marshall, whose 33-year-old company has worked with 60 hotel properties in North America, compares the Trenton Marriott to other hotels whose revenues he’s turned around after re-aligning the hotel’s reality to that of its host city. Citing The George Washington Hotel in Winchester, VA, as an example, he explains that the small roadside town couldn’t support a hotel that “was running like a Ritz-Carlton.”

“It was supposed to be a lynchpin of downtown growth but the hotel had its nose in the air. It alienated itself from the local population,” Marshall said after his company took over management its occupancy rate increased from 48 percent to 67 percent in the three years. He said Marshall lowered room rates and hosted numerous community charity events. “Let’s get back to the truth. Let’s be something to the people,” he says.

No one at the council meeting spoke against the proposal, and the only person to comment — a local developer and commercial property owner — spoke in general terms about the need to properly fund the hotel and to bring in good managers to sustain it as an anchor for the few businesses and restaurants that have opened nearby.Council member Alex Bethea agreed, telling Marshall, “If you can help us get us out of this black hole I’ll be the first to vote for you.”

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