Schenectady County

Schenectady wants piece of meeting industry

Absent a convention center, Schenectady is not the obvious choice for large trade shows, conventions
Owner of the Washington Street Armory in Schenectady Ray Legere stands in the stadium seat section with the converted soccer turf playing surface behind him Tuesday, March 31, 2015.
Owner of the Washington Street Armory in Schenectady Ray Legere stands in the stadium seat section with the converted soccer turf playing surface behind him Tuesday, March 31, 2015.

Absent a convention center, Schenectady is not the obvious choice for large trade shows, conventions and annual conferences.

But that could be a good thing, at least according to one meeting industry expert, who says the people planning those kinds of gatherings are sick of the same old cookie-cutter spaces and hunting instead for fresh, interesting venues. And Schenectady has plenty of those, like an old bank turned banquet hall and a recently refurbished armory.

Schenectady has other things these people want; they just don’t know it yet, said Meeting Industry Experts CEO Brigitte Connors. Its downtown is walkable, with pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and crosswalks and an eclectic mix of restaurants. It has a train station smack in the middle of downtown. And once Mohawk Harbor is built, it will soon have variety: meeting rooms and dining spots along a bike-hike path and river.

“Banquet space with water views is a really nice way to break up the conference room rut,” she said. “A nice view with interesting things to look at can be very conducive for learning and networking. People need stimulation.”

The Schenectady County Visitors Agency just hired Connors as a sales consultant to help the city compete for and win new convention and meeting business, courtesy of a $23,500 grant from the Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority. The grant will also go toward developing materials to market the county as a meeting destination and submit bids for upcoming meetings.

The time is now to start competing for more meetings, conventions and events, said Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen. In the past, the city has been hampered by its lack of hotel rooms, he said. But with three new hotels boasting a combined 400 rooms coming to the city in the next two years, a place to spend the night for attendees should no longer be a problem.

“Proctors is a great space for these events, especially with Key Hall and GE Theater right there,” he said. “But the Hampton Inn next door has 100 rooms. It’s hosting General Electric employees and weddings practically every weekend. We just weren’t able to produce the hotel rooms we needed to support the conference space people wanted.”

With the Holiday Inn on Nott Terrace out of commission, hotel space has been even harder to come by than usual. That hotel was demolished to make way for a new 124-room DoubleTree by Hilton, which is under construction and accepting reservations starting in December.

The former American Locomotive Company campus off Erie Boulevard is getting two new hotels — including a 124-room Courtyard by Marriott and an as-yet-to-be-named national brand offering 150 rooms — as part of a massive redevelopment that will feature a casino, condos, apartments, retail space and a harbor. But the hotels aren’t just necessary for overnight guests of the casino.

A large banquet facility capable of seating anywhere from 800 to 1,000 people is coming to the site, as well.

“It will be the biggest in the county,” Gillen said. “And the reason we need to do this now is these people book their meetings two, three years out. So we’re going to be up and running with big-event space at the casino in that time frame, and we want to be prepared.”

Shuttle service will be offered from the casino site to downtown, which Gillen described as a key selling point when competing for regional meetings hosted by state associations, trade groups, labor organizations and others.

The Schenectady County Visitors Agency, the county’s tourism promotion agency, which is sponsored by Proctors, will send a representative to a meeting of the Empire State Society of Association Executives next month to begin recruiting for conferences and meetings. One of its tasks will be selling existing space in the city, as well as future space.

One of the largest spaces in the city — the Schenectady Armory — has long been ignored, having spent most its life as military training space. The 86,000-square-foot goliath along Washington Avenue actually features 27,500 square feet of main floor space — bigger even than the floor space of the Times Union Center and Washington Avenue Armory in Albany. Ray and Jeff Legere of Legere Restorations have been refurbishing the space as a multipurpose sporting arena, but are also adamant about marketing it for trade shows, exhibition space and large events.

On Wednesday, the Metroplex board approved a $90,000 grant to help with the renovation costs.

“GE, back in the ’50s, had its big stockholder meetings there,” Gillen said. “So it’s kind of like going back to the future by using the armory as this big venue. It’s an interesting venue. And people in the meeting business are looking for interesting venues, things that are a little quirky.”

Key Hall, located near Proctors downtown, drums up a lot of event business, in large part because of the venue’s quirkiness. The historic building was a bank for more than 100 years and features Italian marble, terrazzo floors, a 40-foot-high ceiling and the bank’s original vault.

“Many people have told us that they’re tired of the same old venues,” Gillen said. “There’s a blinding sameness about four white walls in a suburban setting. We have interesting space. And now that we’ll have enough hotel rooms, this new project is going to take us to the next level.”

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