By JACK WEATHERLY
When ground was broken two years ago on the Jackson Westin hotel in downtown, the brand was owned by Starwood Properities.
Since then, the Westin brand was sold to Marriott International. A Marriott hotel has long been operating in downtown Jackson.
So now will Marriott be competing against itself?
Marriott, with the $13 billion acquisition in September of Starwood Properties – whose 30 brands now include Westin – owns only a handful of its now nearly 6,000 properties.
Marriott’s model is “asset light,” said spokeswoman Barbara Delollis.
But the hotels will be using customer loyalty points programs that will be accepted at both downtown hostelries.
The Jackson Westin will open on Aug. 3 and put its 203 brand-new rooms on the market plus 12,000 square feet of meeting space. The Marriott will offer its 303 rooms and nearly 80,000 square feet of meeting space.
The question is: who will have the advantage?
Al Rojas, general manager of the 330,000-square-foot Jackson Convention Complex, said that the new kid on the block does initially, simply because it is new.
In the long long run, the Marriott, which opened in the late 1970s, and other downtown hotels – the Hilton Garden Inn in the old King Edward hotel and the Old Capitol Inn — will also benefit because of the aggregate drawing power, Rojas said.
The Marriott has long dominated as the convention hotel for Jackson but it is showing its age a bit.
Its website says that the hotel has a “new lobby.”
Online reviews by guests are generally favorable, and 85 percent of them recommend it. At the same time, there is a thread of criticism about the guest rooms needing upgrading that runs through the reviews.
Efforts to talk with the top management of the Marriott, which is privately owned, were not successful.
Michael “Doc” Terry, an instructor at the University Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management and consultant, said in an email:
“Westin will likely have an advantage, as Marriott and Starwood members who visit Jackson try both hotels and review [on] TripAdvisor. The newness of Westin and the Marriott corporate people will put pressure on the Marriott franchisee.”
Rojas said that shortly after he arrived in June 2015 he eagerly participated in the ceremonial groundbreaking for the Westin.
The lack of rooms has cost the city convention and meeting business, Rojas said.
In fiscal 2015, there were 187 events, compared with 209 events in fiscal 2014, according to the complex’s annual report.
Direct and indirect economic impact in 2015 was $25.6 million, compared with $34.4 million in 2014.
Proximity to the complex is a decided factor when organizations make plans, Rojas said.
“There is a convention looking for Jackson . . . in 2021,” Rojas said. Transportation cost is a “big ticket item,” he said. “So the closer they can have the rooms to the complex . . . they can reduce some of their transportation costs.”
The Westin is one block from the complex.
Downtown has had a struggle in attracting people for dining and music in recent years – with notable exceptions such as Hal and Mal’s and Martin’s – which can build loyalties to the city itself, Rojas said.
Such things as the Capitol Art Lofts, which will open this year, and the reopening on April 1 of the refurbished Underground 119, a blues cafe, on South President Street, help.
Those things can create positive “second and third experiences,” which color perceptions of Jackson, he said.