Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated the incorrect opening date of the new Kansas City International Airport. It’s set to open in March 2023.
It was only seven years ago that Kansas City lost its most recent bid to host the Republican National Convention.
But the City of Fountains will tout two major improvements as it puts together a bid for the 2024 convention that will crown the Republican nominee for president.
Since its unsuccessful 2014 bid to host the 2016 GOP convention, Kansas City has added a massive hotel downtown in the 800-room Loews Kansas City Hotel. City leaders can also publicize the new $1.5 billion airport terminal that’s set to open in March 2023.
When Kansas City lost its last bid to Cleveland, some officials identified a lack of hotel rooms downtown, lack of fixed rail and possible challenges in raising millions of dollars in needed funding as potential reasons for the letdown.
Since then, the KC Streetcar opened its starter line, which connects downtown to the River Market and Union Station. And at least until the 2020 onset of the pandemic, downtown continued a years-long streak of new development and investments.
“All of those things are additive when groups like this consider a city,” said Jon Stephens, president and CEO of PortKC. “It is a political event — people are coming for a purpose. But they’re also coming to experience a city. So the more you have quality amenities those of course are going to be additive.”
Stephens was previously the interim director of Visit KC, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, and was a member of the host committee that sought to lure the 2016 convention here.
While he’s not involved in the city’s current bid, Stephens said the city is well positioned now. For years, the largest conventions and gatherings have not viewed Kansas City as a top-tier destination, he said. But that image is changing.
The Loews hotel helps that by not only adding inventory adjacent to Bartle Hall and the T-Mobile Center. But it also solves another problem of convention recruiters: the desire to house large numbers of guests under one roof. For a political convention, for instance, organizers may want an entire state delegation at the same location.
“One challenge we faced wasn’t even the total number of quality hotel rooms, but the size of those hotels and the ability to host large delegations all in one facility,” Stephens said. “So the Loews hotel is really a significant addition for conventions of this type going forward.”
Though Kansas City didn’t win its last bid, Stephens said it didn’t lose it by much.
“We got the feedback that it truly was neck and neck with Cleveland and for various reasons that maybe we’ll never know, they chose that city over us.”
The reconstruction of Kansas City International Airport was driven by the desire to upgrade aging infrastructure and provide more space inside the currently cramped terminals. But as city leaders began planning for a new single terminal, they got to make other improvements.
Currently, the airport struggles with managing crowds arriving for large-scale events like sports tournaments and business conferences. That’s because there are multiple entry and exit points so managing transit for large groups can be a hassle, said Justin Meyer, the city’s deputy aviation director.
He said the new facility will boast single entrance and exit points and a large information desk. That will help airport staff welcome guests and coordinate ground transportation from the airport.
“That’s a really difficult task in the existing facility,” Meyer said. “So one of the things we were very cognizant about in the new terminal was that arrival flow for large groups.”
The arrival of the convention couldn’t come at a better time for hotels in the region. From early on, the pandemic decimated both leisure and business travel. And hotel occupancy rates for the Kansas City metro are only at 45% — well below the 2019 average of only 67% occupancy.
“It would be a big deal,” said Kurt Mayo, executive director of the Hotel & Lodging Association of Greater Kansas City. “If we could book this one, that’s going to be a big boost in the arm even though it’s a ways off.”
While leisure travel has picked up somewhat in 2021, Mayo said business travel and conventions have been slow to recover.
Data from Visit KC shows nearly $300 million in losses from conventions and conferences that were canceled because of the pandemic. The organization says nearly 375,000 total room nights were lost from the pandemic.
Yet, hotel inventory continues to grow with new rooms opening all the time. In 2016, Visit KC recorded about 4,200 rooms in 15 downtown hotels. There are now more than 5,500 rooms across 21 hotels and Visit KC expects the number of rooms to increase to 6,816 by 2024. Likewise, the five-county metro area’s current inventory of 30,679 rooms is expected to grow to nearly 35,000 rooms by 2024.
And though the pandemic tested operators, Mayo said only two major hotels have recently closed for good: the Adam’s Mark near the Truman Sports Complex and the Holiday Inn Aladdin downtown (though Mayo said that building is expected to be renovated and reopened soon).
“We’ve actually gained with the Loews,” he said, “so we’re in a better position than we were last go around.”
At the time of the 1976 Republican National Convention, the last time Kansas City hosted a major nominating convention, Mayo was working at a Hilton hotel near the Country Club Plaza. He said the event was good not only for business, but for the city’s image as well.
Now, like then, organizers can expect tens of thousands of delegates, party officials and journalists to pour untold amounts of cash into the region’s hotels, restaurants and shops. Such an event is so large that it would likely push visitors to stay in the farthest suburbs and possibly in adjoining cities like Topeka and St. Joseph.
But, as Mayo witnessed 45 years ago, it would also provide a more intangible benefit, the kind of publicity that’s hard to buy.
“They’re going to show what we have to offer. They’re going to be offering live coverage of not only the convention but shots of streetscapes and all that. There’s going to be a lot of publicity and it can really put Kansas City in a great light.”