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Crews have finished the first phase of the largest hotel renovation in city history, an $18 million face lift that will make the Adam's Mark a one-stop venue for meetings and will likely have a lasting impact on convention bookings in the region.

About 400 workers have spent the past year converting the third floor of the waterfront hotel into a spacious ballroom, foyer and exhibit hall. A floor that once housed the hotel's popular fitness center has been transformed into 39,000 square feet of upscale meeting space adorned with chandeliers, decorative mirrors and an eclectic mix of paintings. There are also new break-out rooms to accommodate smaller gatherings.

"Outside of the convention center, it is certainly the largest formal meeting space in Western New York," said Kevin Kuchta, director of advertising and marketing. "And everything is brand new, from the state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment right down to the silverware and china settings."

The project also included renovation of all 486 guest rooms and construction of a 4,000-square-foot glass-enclosed, weather-controlled lobby that is surrounded by newly-planted shrubs and trees.

The modernization was launched shortly after the St. Louis-based Adam's Mark & Resorts purchased the former waterfront Hilton.

Meeting planners and community leaders are getting their first glimpses of the expanded hotel this week at a series of receptions and tours. About 400 guests have been invited to a special cocktail reception tonight and nearly 30 meeting planners from across the state inspected the Adam's Mark on Monday. Richard Geiger, president of the Greater Buffalo Convention & Visitors Bureau, accompanied the out-of-town delegation.

Geiger said the expansion of the Adam's Mark has already started to reshape the way the convention and visitors bureau does business. He said bureau marketers can now offer two downtown venues -- the convention center, with its link to the Hyatt Regency that is undergoing a $2.8 million renovation, and the Adam's Mark.

"This is first-class meeting space and there's a lot of it under one roof," said Geiger. "The Adam's Mark will definitely have a positive impact on convention business in Buffalo. It's going to help us attract groups that we've had a hard time attracting in the past."

Charles Reader III, general manager at the Adam's Mark, said industry figures document that about 60 percent of all groups in the market for meeting space are looking for one venue that can offer between 50,000 square feet and 75,000 square feet of space. When the final phase of the expansion is finished in March, the Adam's Mark will have 72,000 square feet of meeting space.

"We think we've just opened an enormous market for the region," Reader said, noting that the project has increased the hotel's work force from 220 a year ago to 480 this week.

The New York State Association for the Education of Young Children is among the groups that is actively searching for a Buffalo site for an upcoming convention. Executive Director Gail Flanery said the conference will be held in three or four years and will attract 2,500 people. She traveled from Albany to visit the Adam's Mark earlier this week and said she was impressed with the renovations.

"It's a beautiful space and would definitely fit our needs. We're a large group and we need quite a bit of exhibit and meeting space," she said.

The association last met in Buffalo three years ago at the Buffalo Convention Center. Ms. Flanery said the group had a "great experience" in 1996, but she said she has not toured the convention center since.

Reader said early bookings have been strong, with 16 major events already signed up in September. The first large group that will use the new meeting space is the 6th Marine Division Association reunion. The group has booked about 1,300 room nights for an event that begins next week.

Reader downplayed the notion that the renovated Adam's Mark will lure business away from the convention center, a 21-year-old facility that even its operators admit is having a tough time competing with newer venues in other cities. Efforts are under way to secure funding to build a new $124.5 million convention center at the so-called Mohawk site on Washington Street.

Reader said there will always be a strong market for a venue like the convention center, noting that the Adam's Mark will not be going after the larger trade shows or events like boat shows, auto shows or entertainment festivals.

"We didn't build the space to go head-to-head with the convention center," he said.

But one thing is clear: As the Adam's Mark begins an aggressive effort to market its new meeting facilities, it could be become increasingly difficult for visiting groups to book large blocks of hotel rooms downtown during peak summer months.

"It's a double-edged sword, there's no doubt about it," said Geiger. "As the Adam's Mark does more self-contained events, its room inventory for groups that use the convention center won't be as large as it was in the past."

Some critics of the Mohawk site proposed for the new convention center have questioned the wisdom of building a facility that will have twice as much exhibit space as the existing center without addressing the need for more downtown hotel space. Advocates insist that the facility must be built before there's any chance of attracting a major hotel developer.

The final phase of the Adam's Mark renovation will begin this month and will include construction of additional upscale meeting space on the first floor, a new sports bar and a gift shop. The remaining work will be completed within six months.

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