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The Lehigh Valley has long wanted more space for business conferences. It’s getting it — and it’s paying dividends.

Historic Hotel Bethlehem sees 25% increase over year

The Historic Hotel Bethlehem has seen an increase in business meetings in the past year. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)
The Historic Hotel Bethlehem has seen an increase in business meetings in the past year. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)
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Dan Withrow has been getting busier over the last year at Hotel Bethlehem.

As director of food and beverage sales and operations, he and the rest of the executive conference team have seen a sharp increase in business meetings. Withrow said Hotel Bethlehem has seen a 25% increase in the last year.

“We’re getting quite a few people from New Jersey and, of course, a lot of locals,” said Withrow, who said the hotel hosted about 100 meetings in the last year. “Obviously locals have been our driving force, but even places out of the area are coming out and doing business again with us.”

Businesses have been gradually returning to in-person meetings since the COVID pandemic started to wind down. About 18 months ago, Withrow said, the groups were usually smaller and around eight people.

“It wasn’t anything like it was pre-COVID, but we are seeing an uptick in our corporate meetings getting larger,” he said. “Now there are 25 to 30, which is more of a normal size meeting for us.”

Those increases are reflected in the Lehigh Valley’s gross domestic product report that was released by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis in December. The hospitality, arts, entertainment, hotels and food services sector contributed $2.1 billion in the Valley’s economy in 2022, up from $1.4 billion during the pandemic year of 2020. It’s also an improvement from the pre-COVID times in 2019, when it was $1.8 billion.

“We know clearly that the sector was hit hard by COVID and lost a lot of opportunities to have those kinds of events, conferences and meetings,” said George Lewis, special assistant to the president and CEO at Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. “As those events have come back, so has our regional hospitality sector. Not only have we recovered the losses from COVID, but we’re at a level of contribution to the economy that’s bigger than it was pre-COVID.”

Bree Nidds, chief operating officer for Discover Lehigh Valley, said there has been a 50% increase in corporate conference and meeting opportunities in the Valley over the past six months when compared to the previous year.

The numbers should go up in the next GDP report with the expansion of Wind Creek Bethlehem, which unveiled several thousand square feet of meeting space in June. The 23,000-square-foot Foundry Ballroom, along with two smaller ballrooms totaling an additional 10,000 square feet, have been in use since then.

Patrick Ryan, who took over as Wind Creek’s general manager in October, said at the ribbon cutting that the Lehigh Valley has been waiting for such space.

“I’ve been in this market for 20 years now,” Ryan said. “I’ve been with the property for 15 years and it’s always been something when I was in sales that would be in Harrisburg or I would be out of Las Vegas at a trade show and people are attracted to the area of proximity to New York and Philly.”

Withrow said that the fanfare around Wind Creek’s construction has helped shake the cobwebs off those who were used to meeting virtually.

“Having these other venues and other options is shaking people awake,” he said. “People are thinking we should go out and meet with people again, we should have these contacts with people that we haven’t.”

That means the larger meetings may also feature a cocktail party or a dinner afterward instead of heading straight home.

“That’s something that didn’t happen before COVID,” Withrow said. “People want to have that interaction outside of just the Zoom office meeting.”

Why it’s a big deal for the Valley

Nidds, from Discover Lehigh Valley, said local businesses deciding to stay local, rather than looking toward Philadelphia or New York for a meeting location, is easier because they already know the area.

“There is a notable benefit for a destination to have a strong business community, particularly businesses that organize meetings and conferences and choose their home base,” Nidds said. “These businesses know and understand the destination, which makes the decision to book within the region a bit easier.”

The economic benefit goes beyond simply renting the conference room and ordering some refreshments.

“The economic impact is particularly evident in the attendee base, whether attendees require overnight accommodations,” Nidds said. “For instance, a Lehigh Valley-based company may opt to host its international conference in the region, drawing participants globally due to the convenience of hosting in their own backyard. For the Lehigh Valley, business meetings and conferences serve as ideal opportunities to introduce new visitors to the destination, potentially sparking their interest in returning for future visits.”

Lewis said these conferences help put the Lehigh Valley on the map, especially if it draws people from out of the area.

“It adds to the economy, certainly by bringing those meetings here and having those people stay in our hotels, eat at our restaurants, and spend money while they’re here in the Lehigh Valley,” he said. “The other benefit is that it brings people here, getting people to know the Lehigh Valley.”

Lewis said the Valley is usually a “blank slate” for those who live beyond 75 or 100 miles from it, and it’s a chance to make a good first impression.

“So it gets more people here to have them experience the Lehigh Valley, to put their feet on the ground here to see what life’s like here … to see the hotels and the restaurants, to see the quality of life in the community.”

Morning 첥Ƶ reporter Evan Jones can be reached at ejones@mcall.com.

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