SACRAMENTO — The Jehovah's Witnesses are proving to be a summertime blessing for Sacramento's recession-ravaged hotels.
The Witnesses signed a five-year contract in September to hold the annual Christian Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses at the Sacramento Convention Center.
The more than 6,000 attendees expected on each of eight weekends this summer will fill nearly 3,000 hotel rooms in 13 hotels – mostly in the downtown area – and spend an estimated $16 million.
"It's a huge economic impact; to get a group for eight weekends is huge," said Brenda Kirian, general manager of the Hyatt Hotel at 1209 L St. Witnesses have booked 225 of the hotel's 503 rooms on Thursday, Friday and Saturday on convention weekends until late August.
Sacramento-area hotels can use the business in light of occupancy rates that – according to hotel industry analyst PKF Consulting – have fallen from 70.7 percent in 2006 to 59.6 percent in 2009.
And when hotel rooms are empty, the money stops flowing – to the hotels, to local businesses and to governments.
City of Sacramento transient occupancy tax revenue – collected from hotel guests – has been plummeting. It was more than $21 million in fiscal 2007-08 but is expected to be less than $13.5 million when the current fiscal year concludes at the end of this month. Sacramento County's occupancy taxes have fallen from $6.9 million to $4.5 million over the same period.
Sonia Bradley, vice president of marketing at the Sacramento Convention and Visitor's Bureau, said the hotel slump has been driven by a drop in business from conventions and meetings. Those "are the core businesses that drive hotel occupancy" in Sacramento, she said.
It's not so much that there have been fewer conventions, but that the number of attendees has dropped.
"Organizations are still holding meetings, but they're smaller," said Paul Miller, director of sales and services at the convention bureau.
"Instead of staying in five hotels, groups stay in three," said Doris Gray, sales manager at Best Western Sutter House at 1100 H St. She said conventions provide a good portion of her hotel's business.
The convention bureau has fought back in part by using the recession as a weapon.
"Some people are looking at Sacramento for its good value compared to other cities," Miller said. "If organizations had been meeting at high-end, five-star hotels in certain cities, they're seeing Sacramento as a come-and-get-business-done kind of city."
Miller said the picture is starting to improve, as revenue from conventions and meetings booked by the bureau went from $135 million last year to $140 million this year. The Jehovah's Witnesses convention was crucial to that gain.
Executives at downtown hotels point out that the event is particularly valuable because it is filling rooms on traditionally slow summer weekends.
"It's great business for us because it's on the weekend – and Sacramento is quiet on the weekends," said Liz Tavernese, general manager at the Holiday Inn at 300 J St.
"If we didn't have the group here, we'd probably have 40 percent occupancy at this time," said Best Western's Gray. "The city booked those dates because business was slow on weekends. They looked at the down time."
Kirian, general manager at the Hyatt, noted that full hotel rooms drive business in other ways, too.
"When you're bringing that many people in, they need to eat," she said. As a special service, the hotel is selling box lunches, breakfast and a buffet dinner at the hotel. Other hotels are offering similar services.
Area restaurants have seen an uptick in business, too.
Jason Ortega, general manager at P.F. Chang's, said he noticed about 200 customers come in from the convention on its first two weekends, May 28 and June 4.
At the Old Spaghetti Factory, general manager Raina Cyphers said she has noticed a few families wearing their name tags from the convention.
Although the convention bureau has expanded its efforts to land conventions during the recession beyond politics to areas that are doing well – like the alternative energy and health sectors – the Jehovah's Witnesses did not decide to come to Sacramento because of a marketing coup.
Every year, the religion's world headquarters in New York starts new conventions to accommodate its membership base, which has grown steadily for the past 60 years, and is now at 1 million nationwide.
The denomination, which now has about 50 regional conventions in California, decided that it was time to add a convention in Sacramento.
Themed "Remaining Close to Jehovah," the event brings members from Modesto, Stockton, Yreka and Nevada. The closest convention before this one has been at the Cow Palace, in Daly City, which will continue.
William Laffoday, media spokesman for the 10,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in the Sacramento area, said the cost of hotel rooms is a worthy expense to members who save up all year to attend the convention.
"Our history of conventions goes way back to the early 1900s," he said. "Everyone budgets for it because this is a very important feature in our spiritual lives."
The yearly tradition involves Witnesses going door to door, reaching out to non-members before the convention.
"We go out to people's homes and invite them to the convention. We blanket the area," said Laffoday. "We have no doubt that hundreds will be there as a result of the invitation."
This weekend, hotels were hosting Jehovah's Witnesses attending the third gathering of the convention, which will be conducted in Spanish.