Search for new manager; Pandemic restrictions impacting Harlingen convention bookings

State COVID-19 restrictions limiting the capacity of public gathering is impacting large scale events at the Harlingen Convention Center. However, the Hilton Garden Inn booked to capacity which is attributed in part to its Hilton Honors program. (Maricela Rodriguez/Valley Morning Star)

HARLINGEN — The Harlingen Convention Center is searching for its third general manager since opening less than two years ago.

Late last month, Arturo Menendez resigned, about three months after he was hired as general manager of the $16.7 million convention center and the newly opened $25 million Hilton Garden Inn hotel.

Menendez, a veteran hotel executive, declined to state the reason behind his resignation.

In late September, Menendez replaced Jeff Hamel, a veteran hotel executive who resigned earlier that month after taking the position in February 2019.

Both Menendez and Hamel resigned amid plummeting convention center bookings stemming from federal guidelines and state orders limiting capacity to 10 to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

At the convention center Tuesday, Steven Villarreal, its sales and marketing director, said officials are searching for a new general manager who would be hired “soon.”

Convention center bookings

Questions continued to surround the convention center’s bookings.

While Villarreal said the convention center was booking new business, Harlingen Assistant City Manager Gabriel Gonzalez said state restrictions limiting capacity continue to keep the facility from booking events.

In September, Villarreal said restrictions had not allowed the convention center to book significant events since the pandemic’s March outbreak while its next bookings were tentatively set for June.

But on Tuesday, Villarreal said, “Our bookings have been very good.”

“We’ve got some groups coming up, some functions coming up,” Villarreal said, declining to disclose details behind any bookings, including dates.

“We are having very good business and we’re moving forward and booking up real well,” he said.

At City Hall, Gonzalez, who oversees the convention center’s bookings for the city, said the facility “has not booked up yet because of the pandemic.”

Gonzalez noted Cameron County booked the convention center as a Nov. 3 election polling place during three weeks of early voting in October.

Hotel booked up

Meanwhile, the $25 million, five-story Hilton Garden Inn is booked about two months after it opened.

“We’re 100 percent booked,” Villarreal said. “It’s been for a while.”

Villarreal cited Hilton’s program which offers discounts to return customers.

“Hilton is a very strong brand,” he said. “It books very well. We have a global Hilton loyalty program — Hilton Honors. That’s for the Hilton travelers.”

With 149 rooms, the Hilton Garden Inn is the city’s biggest hotel.

As part of an agreement, the city agreed to fund construction of the convention center while BC Lynd Hospitality, which operates the convention center for the city, built the attached hotel at Teege and Harlingen Heights roads.

Under the contract, the city and BC Lynd split any of the convention center’s profits while offsetting any of its deficits.

Pandemic impacts convention center bookings

In September, Keith Morgan, BC Lynd’s director of operations, presented city commissioners with the convention center’s budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, showing the company had cut projected revenues in half compared with budget forecasts prepared during the same period a year before.

During the meeting, BC Lynd released figures showing total revenues at $488,150 with a deficit of $234,772.

Last year, the coronavirus pandemic deeply impacted the convention center’s revenues, Morgan told commissioners.

With a total budget of $955,108 and a deficit of $202,389 for the 2019-2020 fiscal year, the convention center generated actual revenues of $890,030, Morgan said.

Morgan said the convention center had been on track to meet budget projections until the pandemic’s March outbreak.

From the pandemic’s outbreak through the end of September, the convention center lost a projected $182,190 as a result of event cancelations, he said.

Based on average bookings, BC Lynd also estimated an additional $400,000 in lost revenue from March to September, Morgan said during the September meeting.

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