By Catherine Tsai — Associated Press Writer

DENVER (AP) — A company stuck paying for unused hotel rooms when cost-conscious franchisees stayed home from its convention in Denver isn't leaving the rooms empty.

Instead, Handyman Matters Franchise Corp. is letting eight low-income, working families stay in the rooms for four nights — free.

The families also were invited to eat meals with convention attendees gratis. They got keys to their rooms in The Westin Tabor Center downtown on Wednesday.

"I just want to say 'Thank you so much,'" said 30-year-old Sandra Bivin, who is staying in one of the unused rooms with her three children, ages 5 to 12.

Her children Anthony, Alexis and Azaya crawled under fluffy white comforters in their 10th-floor room with a flat-panel television and a wall of windows looking out on skyscrapers downtown. They brought swimsuits for the hotel pool.

"We all have a responsibility as business owners in our communities to do things that will assist other people and make their lives better," said Andy Bell, founder and CEO of Handyman Matters. "That is the flagship of what we do."

Handyman Matters, based in Lakewood, has 122 home-repair franchisees in 33 states and three countries. It has a convention each year for franchisees to swap experiences and advice.

Eighteen months ago the company reserved 100 rooms at the Westin for the four-day convention, usually attended by at least 90 percent of franchisees. But after 44 percent of franchisees saw sales fall in 2008, only about 72 percent traveled to the convention this year, Bell said.

Rather than pay $110 per night for each canceled room, the company paid an extra $50 per room per night to fill the rooms with families, all of whom live in lower-cost housing provided by Volunteers of America while they work toward becoming homeowners.

Bell called the cost "marginal" and said he hopes other convention organizers facing overbookings follow.

Bivin was earning $30,000 a year doing accounting but went back to school in August in hopes of one day finding a higher-paying job.

A short time later, she found out she was pregnant again. Her credit card company said her interest rate will jump from 0.99 percent to 17.99 percent in March. A tax refund that she planned to use to pay down her car will now go toward paying some of her $7,200 in credit card debt. She said the room at the Westin offered a chance to relax.

Lisa D., a single mother who asked not to have her last name used to protect her privacy, said getting the keys to her hotel room took her back to her days as a flight attendant.

She left the airlines in part to be home with her son, now 7. After about five years of working for nonprofit organizations, she took a job as a paraprofessional at an elementary school.

"I went from making decent money to about one-fourth as much," she said. "Because of the economy I decided to go back and get my teaching license. Teachers are always going to be needed."

She said she hasn't been in a hotel as nice as the Westin since she worked for the airlines. "I'm so very thankful that a company would think of us," she said.

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