by katie arcieri
A growing economy and subsiding fears from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have led to an upswing in corporate travel here and across the nation, experts said.
"The economy really seems to be coming out of its shell," said John Challenger, chief executive officer for Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago outplacement firm that compiled a study of post-Sept. 11 job losses. "That's allowed companies to start putting much more emphasis on building business."
The resurgence in business travel has evidenced itself in Howard County, thanks in part to the county's healthy business climate and its location between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., local hotel managers said.
Howard is reflective of the business travel uptick across Maryland, said Mary Jo McCulloch, president of the Maryland Hotel & Lodging Association. The growth of the industry in Howard mirrors the county's increasing number of companies, said Rachelina Bonacci, executive director of Howard County Tourism.
"The hotel industry has just mushroomed in Howard County," she said. "The hotels help accommodate those businesses bringing new clients, new employees to Howard County."
In 1998, Howard was home to 114,514 jobs and 6,962 businesses, according to the Howard County Economic Development Authority. By 2001, those figures had risen to 132,939 jobs and 7,373 businesses.
"Howard County continues to not only grow but continues to be a leader in job growth in the state of Maryland," said Richard Story, chief executive officer for the Howard County Economic Development Authority.
The corporate travel upswing also has led to slightly more tax revenue in county coffers.
"We're starting to see a little bit of an uptick," county budget administrator Ray Wacks said.
Corporate travel rises
Howard is home to more than 30 hotels, Bonacci said, adding that many provide services to the business traveler during the week and the leisure traveler on weekends.
Homewood Suites by Hilton, a hotel geared toward the corporate traveler, is the newest addition to the county's list of hotels. Since opening in November, the hotel has rented more than 15,000 rooms to corporate travelers.
"We're expecting a very strong year," sales director Jeanette Cross said. "There's evidently pretty strong demand for meeting space here."
Homewood Suites isn't alone in reaping the benefits of the upswing in corporate travel.
"It's just like this buzz in the air," said Regina Ford, director of marketing for Turf Valley Resort and Conference Center in Ellicott City. "It's very exciting to see the way it's picking up."
To stay competitive, hotels must meet the demands of the corporate traveler, said Tia Gordon, spokesperson for the American Hotel and Lodging Association.
"In our daily lives, we depend on computers, on e-mail," she said. "That needs to be part of our business."
Representatives from Homewood Suites and other county hotels say they are targeting the corporate traveler.
Besides offering free high-speed Internet access in every room, Homewood provides more than 2,000 feet of meeting space and free wireless access in rooms, the hotel's lodge and its business center. It also provides in-suite food service from Applebee's restaurant and a complimentary shuttle service to destinations within a 5-mile radius, Cross said.
"Our goal is to make our hotel feel as close to home as it possibly can," she said.
In addition to offering high-speed Internet access, Turf Valley has 40,000 square-feet of meeting space and a 75-seat amphitheater for meetings, Ford said. He added that the hotel plans to add a business center that will allow clients to use computers.
The Inn at Peralynna _ a 16,000 square-foot guest house on Route 108 that caters to the corporate and leisure traveler _ offers Internet access in every room. It also provides a business center set up like a library, with a fireplace, where executives can kick back in overstuffed chairs, co-owner Cynthia Lynn said.
"They want to be able to take the suit off and get comfortable," she said.
Although the hotel industry is competitive, local hotels often refer customers to other properties if they have no rooms to offer, hotel officials said.
"We will recommend our neighbor instead of not giving our client an option," Cross said.
Ford added that it's just "good business practice" to send customers to other county hotels.
Hotels a revenue producer
The hotel industry accounts for a small, but important part of Howard County's revenue each year, Wacks said. The county levies a 5 percent tax on room rentals, which amounts to roughly $2.7 million a year.
"It's an important number," Wacks said. "If we were to lose $2.7 million, it would have a real negative impact."
The local hotel industry suffered a slight downturn after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Wacks said. In fiscal year 2001, Howard collected roughly $2.5 million in hotel taxes, he said.
Nonetheless, officials have noticed a small uptick recently. Howard collected $179,000 in hotel taxes this February compared to the $146,000 it collected the same month in 2003.
Business travelers who seek entertainment and meals in the county also contribute to Howard's economy, officials said.
"When travelers are here, they live here," Story said. "They eat, they entertain and spend money in the local economy."
E-mail Katie Arcieri at firstname.lastname@example.org.