A refined tug of war
The Carillon Hilton joins the rarefied, and competitive, hotel ranks.
By MARY JANE PARK
Published September 10, 2006
ST. PETERSBURG - Move over, Big Pinks. There's a new hotel in town.
The Renaissance Vinoy Resort in St. Petersburg and the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa in St. Pete Beach are Tampa Bay area icons, to be sure. Still, less than two months since its opening, the Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon Park is becoming a destination in its own right.
In addition to business travelers and bay area residents checking out the new digs, several community organizations have opted to move their big annual fundraising events to the Hilton's 9,200-square-foot ballroom.
Boys & Girls Clubs of the Suncoast, Hospice of the Florida Suncoast and St. Anthony's Health Care are among those moving to the Hilton, which can accommodate as many as 775 guests at a seated dinner, said Diana Fyfe, director of sales and marketing.
Boys & Girls will have the first major gala in the space, a black-tie event Sept. 29 that will feature actors Danny Glover and Felix Justice. Its 2005 event took place at the Coliseum.
Moving to the Hilton appealed on several levels, said executive director Carl Lavender Jr. "We wanted to move our event to a top brand like the Hilton," he said. "We liked the idea of being the first gala for the hotel. The location, we thought, was really good."
With more than 65 companies, Lavender said, the Gateway area is emerging as a major corporate corridor for St. Petersburg, and Boys & Girls wanted to attract some of its supporters there.
St. Anthony's Health Care will bring its Medallion Gala, affiliated with the organization's annual triathlon, to the Carillon Hilton on April 27. One draw was the fact that St. Anthony's has wellness and outpatient care centers within view of the hotel.
"We thought it was a nice opportunity to sort of showcase our presence out there in that community and connect people to the fact we have a presence at Carillon," said Ford Kyes, St. Anthony's president and chief executive.
In addition, he said: "The dates that we had wanted for the Vinoy initially weren't available, and that got us thinking about the new Hilton. With a new neighbor right across the street, we thought, 'Why don't we give this a try?' Of course, we love the Vinoy."
Big hotels throughout South Pinellas vie for numerous events. The Don CeSar, the TradeWinds Resorts, and the Sirata Beach Resort & Conference Center in St. Pete Beach all are frequent sites for fundraisers, as are the Vinoy and the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront.
They also are popular destinations for locals and out-of-towners. Both the Vinoy and the Don are undergoing extensive renovations designed to attract even more visitors.
Russ Bond, the Vinoy's general manager, acknowledged that competition is heating up, giving people more choices.
With its Grand Ballroom's capacity around 600 and the Palm Court Ballroom's around 900 for seated events, the Vinoy remains a signature property, but Bond conceded that some planners don't want to have to wait six to nine months to firm up dates. Like many other big venues, the Vinoy won't guarantee a date too far in advance in case another event comes along that will fill hotel, conference and ballroom space.
"It can be painful to lose to other venues," he said, "because there's not hundreds and hundreds of those events."
The Vinoy's elegance and its downtown St. Petersburg location make it "more convenient for certain people," he said.
At the Don CeSar, a new signature spa and health club are in the works, said John Marks, the resort's general manager.
Despite the increased competition, the Don will always be a landmark, he said, adding that he never tires of driving over the Pinellas Bayway and seeing its famous silhouette.
"I've been general manager here for seven years, and every day I see it, I'm excited," he said.
Still, nonprofit agencies consider numerous factors when it comes to raising money. Location is only one. If a venue charges for parking, the charities sometimes absorb the cost. That leads to another appeal of the new Hilton: free parking.
But the Hilton won't be the new kid on the block for long. On the horizon: the Grand Bohemian, under construction in downtown St. Petersburg and set to open in early 2009.