Room at the top, for meetings

Amenity: Shared conference centers let commercial building tenants rent less office space.

February 20, 2004|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

In recent years, commercial property owners have had to dangle new amenities in front of prospective tenants to gain an edge in an increasingly competitive office-space market.

It might be parking, a lobby restaurant or a fitness center.

For David W. Kornblatt, that something extra is nothing new, because he was one of the first in Baltimore to build a conference center with a spectacular vista for tenants, in his 28-story St. Paul Plaza office tower, in 1989.

Kornblatt hopes to take his venture a step further by promoting his meeting rooms with a view to outside groups.

He is not alone. Just up the street, other office buildings provide similar conference space to tenants and, in some cases, are opening their meeting rooms to the public.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's business section incorrectly identified the address of Manekin LLC's conference center in Charles Center South.
The correct address is 36 S. Charles St.
The Sun regrets the error.

Providing such space saves tenants money by letting them avoid the need to replicate a conference area within their own leased space for occasional use.

"I did a lot of traveling around the country, and I saw them in other cities, and they worked quite well," Kornblatt said. "It effectively allows a tenant to take less space that they have to pay for. It's included in the rent. We felt it would be an asset to the building."

J. Paul Beitler, president of the Beitler Company of Chicago, who has developed more than 10 million square feet of Class A office space in Chicago, said the trend of adding amenities to office buildings began 15 years ago and is seeing a resurgence as vacancy rates have risen.

Perks such as car washing, concierge and delivery services and media-conference centers multiplied - only to disappear once space in buildings filled up, he said.

"Landlords are now facing vacancy issues, and they're back to the drawing board to try to find a point of differentiation," said Beitler, whose projects include developing the Hyatt corporate world headquarters. "I expect in Baltimore you'll see more and more of these amenities returning to buildings, because they have to. The rent per square foot is no longer the sole factor that causes a company to relocate."

Kornblatt first encountered the conference center idea in a building in Chicago in 1971, he said. Today his office tower conference center is among a few of its kind in Baltimore. And with a surplus of available office space downtown, he says, he believes it offers him a competitive advantage.

"The other new buildings are copying us," Kornblatt said.

After spending $200,000 on a face-lift to the space and an upgrade to the 900-car parking garage of his office tower at St. Paul and Lexington streets, Kornblatt is marketing his venture to a broader audience.

The building's 4,000 square feet of meeting space can be divided into five rooms and has the flexibility to handle a roundtable discussion for five or a presentation for 120. Floor-to-ceiling windows and a spectacular view of the downtown skyline from the 22nd floor combine with the latest drop-down projection screen and other technology.

Space speaks for itself

"Most people say, `Oh my gosh, what a great view,'" said Elizabeth V. Kerr, conference center coordinator. "And then they say, `I never knew it was here.' That's because it was never marketed to anybody. It was supposed to be a benefit of this building. My goal is just to get people to walk through the space, because it speaks for itself."

Kerr said she hopes to book the space at least four full days a week and some weekends. She also hopes people will think of the space for weddings, family reunions, corporate parties and weekend seminars.

Part of the reason for Kornblatt's timing on the renovation is that the nearby Tremont hotels will open meeting space soon, he said.

Due to open late next year in the former Grand Lodge of Maryland Masonic Temple in the 200 block of N. Charles St., the hotel is to have 30,000 square feet of banquet and meeting space. The renovation of the historic building, to be called the Tremont Grand, is expected to cost $16 million.

"We think downtown needs more space for ... meetings, conferences and social events," said Michael D. Elliott, director of sales and marketing for Baltimore's Tremonts.

Other facilities

Another building with conference space available for rent by tenants and the public is 100 E. Pratt St., which is owned and managed by Boston Properties. That meeting area, which opened in 1991, features more than 2,000 square feet of space in three different-size conference rooms on the 12th floor.

Nearby, at 36 S. Church St., Manekin LLC offers a three-room conference facility on the second floor of its building. The conference space, expanded parking and a renovated lobby were completed at a cost of $3 million in 2002.

The main conference room seats 20 people, with room for 75 to 100 in another room and a small conference room with seating for eight to 10. Tenants' use of the space in Charles Center South is included in their lease payments. The space also is available to the public for free upon request.

"A lot of tenants were building out huge conference rooms in their space and not using them," said Craig G. Scheiner, vice president senior asset manager at Manekin. "You don't have to build out a board room for 28 people."

Before spending money on renovations, Manekin documented interest in such an amenity when the firm surveyed the top 100 firms in Baltimore.

Beitler predicted Baltimore's office buildings will increasingly feature Internet cafes, places where employees can go during lunch hours and before or after work to do personal business on the Internet.

Although he said he admires the Kornblatt company's ingenuity in trying to reinvent itself through its revamped conference space, he is skeptical about how successful that firm or any other will be in reaching a broader market.

"Whether this is something people will really find to be a benefit, and whether it will be a good little business, time will tell," he said. "But our experience has been that it doesn't work."

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