Spectacular lazy-river swimming pools, rooftop bars where locals love to congregate, destination restaurants run by noted chefs, light-filled meeting spaces and arresting art installations throughout—welcome to the reinvented convention hotel. Increasingly, downtown meetings properties are broadening their appeal to transient business and leisure guests while also enhancing experiences for attendees.

According to hospitality industry analysts, it reflects growing demand from travelers, including but not exclusively Millennials, for a hotel experience that embodies the local culture and is anything but generic.

“Traditionally, convention hotels are not viewed as places to find experiences. It may be unfair, but many travelers regard them as big and institutional,” said Bjorn Hanson, a professor at New York University’s Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism. “This affects their ability to attract leisure guests as well as business travelers who now have more options with lifestyle hotels. As a result, convention hotels are taking steps to make themselves more interesting.”

Hanson also noted that the convenience factor of being the convention headquarters hotel is no longer enough to attract all meeting attendees.

“Millennials don’t have the same preference for staying at the headquarters hotel that older people do,” he said. “They may want the bigger and better fitness centers or other amenities that they can find elsewhere. So this adds to the competition.”

Los Angeles-based consultant Bruce Baltin, managing director of CBRE Hotels, refers to the new generation of convention and downtown hotels as “urban resorts.” A forerunner of the trend, he said, is L.A. Live, the sports and entertainment complex adjacent to the Los Angeles Convention Center, where the co-located JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels opened in 2010 with a luxury spa, expansive pool deck and restaurants run by Wolfgang Puck and other celebrity chefs.

“L.A. Live and the JW Marriott have been a huge success with leisure travelers as well as convention attendees, and have been a catalyst for other developments,” Baltin said.

Meeting planners are among those with a vested interest in convention hotels with leisure appeal, he added.

“Just as planners want to choose a city that can draw attendance, they also want a hotel that can do the same,” he said.

Up the Lazy River
A prime example of a new hotel deigned to attract leisure guests and convention delegates alike is the 1,000-room Marriott Marquis Houston, which opened in December with a pool deck boasting a lazy river in the shape of Texas, a full-service spa, bold artwork, a wine bar, a sports bar with giant multimedia screens and specialty restaurants. Located across from the George R. Brown Convention Center, the hotel also has 100,000 square feet of meeting space that includes the largest ballroom in Houston.

“The Marriott Marquis was built with two goals in mind,” said Jay Marsella, director of sales and marketing for the property. “We wanted to be the best hotel for group and business travel as well as a top leisure destination.”

With its resort amenities, the hotel not only attracts leisure guests but is an enticement for attendees to lengthen their stay in Houston, according to Marsella.

“The response from meeting planners has been positive, not only for our location but for well-designed meeting space, including 38 breakout rooms, most with floor-to-ceiling windows offering natural lighting and a creative atmosphere,” Marsella said. “We’re attracting many associations as well as pharma and medical meetings.”

Hot in Cleveland
Another example is the 600-room Hilton Cleveland Downtown, which opened last summer in a Silver LEED-certified tower connected to the Huntington Convention Center and Global Center for Health Innovation. With its sleek design, stellar views of Lake Erie, extensive art collection and popular rooftop bar, the hotel is “blowing perceptions about Cleveland as an industrial Rust Belt city of older stone buildings out of the water,” said Ronnie Collins, director of sales and marketing for the hotel.

Among the standout features are specially commissioned art installations throughout the hotel, including a collage of 2,800 selfie photos by local residents forming a mosaic of the city skyline, as well as chef-driven restaurants and extensive fitness facilities. The hotel also features a large number of suites, including a music-themed suite designed in collaboration with the nearby Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“Our restaurants and bars have a non-traditional, free-standing feel and are part of the city’s hot dining scene,” Collins said. “Along with convention guests, we’re attracting visitors who come in to enjoy the museums or catch a game.”

The hotel’s 50,000 square feet of meeting space is also non-traditional, with living room-style furnishings and glass walls taking advantage of water views and natural light, he added.

San Francisco Treat
The leisure-focused trend is also being felt by older convention hotels, prompting makeovers designed to widen their guest appeal. Among these is the Hilton San Francisco Union Square, a 1,919-room property with 134,000 square feet of meeting space that opened in 1971. The hotel, which already included one of the few outdoor heated pools in the city, recently added Urban Tavern, a street-level gastropub with extensive local beer and wine selections, and Cityscape, a lounge on the 46th floor with 360-degree views of the city and Golden Gate Bridge that can be rented as a private venue. The renovation also included a redesigned lobby with conversation areas, a bar and a culinary marketplace called Herb N’ Kitchen.

“Before the renovation, the lobby was like a train station where people just walked through,” said Frank Manchen, director of sales and marketing for the property. “Now it’s an engaging space where people congregate. It reflects what today’s travelers want.”

While the Hilton does a large amount of group business and often serves as a convention headquarters hotel, Manchen said individual travelers comprise about half of its business mix.

“San Francisco is a very dynamic market—we get a lot of business, leisure and international guests as well,” he said. “Our amenities need to speak to all.”

Coming Attractions
New convention hotels are under development that also promise broad appeal. Among them is a 1,054-room Boston property to be operated by Omni Resorts & Hotels, which will be part of a mixed-use complex across from the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center in the Seaport District. Slated to open in 2021, the hotel will include 120,000 square feet of meeting and event space, a full-service spa, an elevated pool deck and fine-dining and casual restaurants.

Meanwhile, a centerpiece of the recently rebranded McCormick Square Entertainment District, the 1,206-room Marriott Marquis Chicago is set to open this fall in a 40-story tower designed by Gensler, the world-renowned firm that also designed the JW Marriott at L.A. Live. Located across from McCormick Place convention center and next to Wintrust Arena, also under construction, the hotel will feature 90,000 square feet of meeting space, extensive fitness facilities and dining options that include a marketplace food court featuring locally sourced items.