In January a group of 500 managers from Rocketdyne in Canoga Park broke a long tradition.
For 15 years they had met monthly at Sportsmen's Lodge, perhaps the San Fernando Valley's best-known spot for a banquet. But the Sportsmen's was booked for the day they wanted. So they went to the Westlake Plaza Hotel--a simple but telling change of plans.
The Rocketdyne workers were taking advantage of a recent sharp growth in gathering places for business people. The increase has produced spirited competition among new local hotels and reflects the Valley's growth as a business center.
For decades, the 40-year-old Sportsmen's Lodge was one of three or four places to go for meetings of 500 or more. It and the Sheraton Universal, both able to handle 1,000 people in a single room, dominated the local market for larger groups.
Now all that is changing. The last three years have seen these four hotels open in and around the Valley, all eager to play host to meetings:
The Burbank Hilton opened in 1982 with 282 rooms.
The Westlake Plaza in Westlake Village in 1983, with 264.
The Sheraton Premier in Universal City in 1984, with 455.
The Airtel Plaza in Van Nuys in July, with 200.
And, on Jan. 20, 1986, a $40-million, 487-room Marriott hotel is scheduled to open in Woodland Hills. Like the other newcomers, it will offer extensive banquet and conference space. The Marriott's main banquet room will hold 1,100 people.
"The Valley is becoming a city in itself," said Gene Connelly, sales manager at the Airtel Plaza. Of meeting space, he said, "The supply is growing to meet the increasing demand."
By themselves, banquets and conferences rarely produce more than 15% of a local hotel's revenues. But meeting space is a magnet for overnight business.
Half the demand comes from businessmen, half from people holding social events like weddings and bar mitzvahs, those familiar with the market say.
"It's a very strong market for banquet and conference business," said Greg Nilan, a consultant with Pannell Kerr Forster, a Los Angeles accounting firm that advises hotel and restaurant developers.
Nilan, who has studied the Valley, said the greatest demand for banquet rooms comes from Warner Center, the 4-year-old office park in Woodland Hills.
Office Space an Indicator
Office space is a good indicator of demand for banquet space. Warner Center has 1.5 million square feet of offices, 75% to 80% of it occupied. Another 1.7 million square feet are expected to be added in five years, said Carla Gazzolo, a vice president with Coldwell Banker.
Hotels are also betting on meetings of out-of-towners. From 1984 to 1985, according to a Pannell Kerr Forster study, the number of people booking Los Angeles hotel rooms for group meetings rose 18.3%, from 1,463,000 to 1,730,000. By contrast, the number of tourists and individual business travelers rose 1.5% and 6.4%, respectively.
Insurance people hold more banquet meetings and conferences than just about anybody else, hoteliers say. Some Valley hotels advertise in the bimonthly Insurance Conference Planner, a trade publication. Insurance companies lease most of Warner Center's space.
The 16-year-old Sheraton Universal's strategy is to market itself jointly with the Sheraton Premier, said the Premier's director of marketing and sales, Andrew Higgs. The two hotels, situated next to each other in Universal City, have 52,000 square feet of banquet space, the most in the Valley. They can hold events for as many as 5,000 people at once.
The hotels have one large ballroom each and, combined, 37 additional meeting rooms with capacities ranging from 15 to 600 people. The capacity of the Universal ballroom is 1,000 people. The Premier's is 1,500.
Where, then, does that leave the Sportsmen's Lodge, founded in 1945 as a small restaurant in an abandoned gas station and today a business with 10 banquet rooms? Sportsmen's manager, Eden Slegr, acknowledged the increased competition, but said it has not put a dent in the profits of the facility, which he said has more than $5 million in annual food and beverage sales. He said sales increased by about 6% from 1983 to 1984 and are expected to increase again this year.
In an average week, Sportsmen's Lodge has about 50 functions. Last week, for example, those meetings brought together 200 managers from the Lockheed California Co., 75 members of a Valley artists' group and about 500 lunching women from the South Valley chapter of Women's American ORT, the Jewish philanthropic organization.
Slegr said the lodge's newly hired public-relations firm is seeking ways to give a "young, today kind of image" to the establishment, a somewhat old-fashioned place with ponds bridged by wooden walkways and occupied by swans. Its name derives from the discarded practice of stocking the ponds with trout that patrons could catch for dinner.
"We have to be a lot more aggressive, and we certainly have to tighten our belt," Slegr said.