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TRAVEL INDUSTRY

SCORING BIG

River Region Capitalizes on New and Improved Sports Venues

February 2012

By David Zaslawsky

Photography by Robert Fouts

A new soccer complex; a newly renovated Cramton Bowl; and a soon-to-be completed 90,000-square-foot multipurpose indoor sports facility.

This may sound like the beginning of a sports story, but it is all about economic development and in particular the travel industry. It specifically illustrates that the City of Montgomery and Montgomery County are leveraging sporting venues to host events.

Those events translate into hotel rooms filling up; restaurants filling up; people filling up their gas tanks; people shopping, etc. You get the picture.

Sporting events are big business – a critical target segment of the area’s travel industry – and will be a focus in 2012 thanks to a recent, comprehensive travel industry survey conducted by Berkeley Young, president of Young Strategies Inc. He recommended an aggressive effort to promote the new and improved sporting venues to attract sporting events to the area.

That strategy has resulted in the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce’s Convention & Visitor Bureau (CVB) restructuring its staff and realigning sales markets, according to Dawn Hathcock, vice president, Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce, CVB. “We have taken a shotgun approach and we are now narrowing that down.”

She said the CVB is aggressively pursuing sports events. “There will be multiple people selling sports, including the Central Alabama Sports Commission,” Hathcock said. “We could have a whole sales team selling sports and still leave things on the table. That’s how much is out there.”

Montgomery did land the six-day, 32-team 2012 and 2013 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics men’s soccer national championships thanks in part to a new Emory Folmar YMCA Soccer Complex near Auburn University Montgomery. The new facility, which is scheduled to be completed in April, will feature two championship stadium fields, eight lighted regulation fields, seating for 4,000 spectators as well as an indoor practice facility.

The 105-room Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott on EastChase Parkway is one of several host hotels for the national championship soccer tournament.

“We want them to have a great experience at the hotel, but more so we want them to have a great experience in our city so they are telling other affiliate organizations about the venues that are here; the services; the hotels – so that when there are other tournaments that come up they look at Montgomery,” said Layne Matthews, general manager of Fairfield Inn.

The hotel also benefits from softball tournaments held at nearby Dean Fain Park, a four-field complex.The 105-room Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott on EastChase Parkway is one of several host hotels for the national championship soccer tournament.

Layne Matthews
Layne Matthews

The sports segment represents just 5.3 percent of the group category in the travel industry survey. The entire group category accounts for about 29 percent of all the travelers followed by individual business travelers (24.2 percent), travelers attending a conference or meeting (24.1 percent) and leisure travelers (23 percent).

Those athletes and their families spend on average nearly $600 for their entire stay, which tops the amount spent by business travelers and conference/meeting attendees. The sports events participants and their families also shop at Eastdale Mall and EastChase and eat at restaurants throughout the city.

Embassy Suites Montgomery Hotel and Conference Center in downtown Montgomery has a sales manager dedicated to the sports market. Embassy General Manager Tom Quatrochi said that the hotel “has tremendous success with college athletics,” including hosting visiting teams playing at Auburn University.

He is looking forward to new and renovated sports venues. “They could bring a significant portion of the youth market into Montgomery that we have not seen before,” he said. “We are working closely with the CVB in trying to tap that market.”

Those sports events are coming. “You will see more and more sporting events in the region,” Hathcock said. “The great thing about the sports market is they like all types of hotels. They don’t necessarily need a full-service hotel. That’s the great thing about sports – it helps our market across the board whereas a convention is more pinpointed toward convention center hotels or adjacent to the convention center.”

The 86-room Hampton Inn & Suites sits across from the city’s largest hotel – the 342-room Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa at the Convention Center. The Hampton Inn is not a full-service hotel, but it does offer a full, hot breakfast buffet. Sandy Curry, the hotel’s director of sales, said the property lacks enough rooms with two beds to accommodate sports groups. She said that Hampton Inn was “built as a corporate hotel” and has 64 rooms with king-sized beds and 22 rooms with two queen beds.

Sandy Curry
Sandy Curry

That was the case before the Hampton Inn owner bought the former Madison Hotel property, which is being gutted, according to Curry. She said the new hotel, which is tentatively scheduled to open by early fall, will have 150-plus rooms and will offer plenty of rooms with double beds. At that time, Curry will be equipped to handle the athletes and their families from sporting events.

Targeting sporting events is just a sliver of the travel industry pie, but one that is ripe for growth. The city has nearly 6,800 hotel rooms, which generated a combined lodging revenue of $81.3 million in 2010. It was a nice rebound from revenue of $78.3 million in 2009.

Those totals are solely for lodging room revenue. When you add food and beverage, shopping and gasoline, you begin to see the impact the local travel industry has on the River Region.

“This is economic development that is very swift and very effective because whatever we do today will influence a traveler who is going to come within the next 90 days and they are going to put sales tax in the coffers that helps us all,” Young said.

The area’s two hotspots for travelers are downtown and EastChase, where the newest hotels are and that’s where visitors want to stay, Young said. The newest hotels usually have higher room rates and higher occupancy rates, according to Young. Six of the 12 hotels that opened after 2008 were at EastChase. Two each opened downtown; off of Interstate 85, Exit 6; and Hope Hull.

His survey found that the 1,068 hotel rooms downtown from 12 properties generated 27 percent of the total lodging revenue with 16 percent of area’s rooms. The 10 properties in EastChase with a combined 782 rooms – 11 percent of the area’s total inventory – accounted for 17 percent of the total revenues. The most highly concentrated number of hotels and rooms is off of Exit 6. The 29 properties near there have a combined 2,573 rooms – about 38 percent of the entire market.

Although the sports market will be getting plenty of attention, the Renaissance and Embassy are focused on the corporate side. One of the Renaissance sales managers concentrates on the corporate market, said Mike Eveleth, the hotel’s general manager. The hotel’s parent company – PCH Resorts – has three sales managers who handle the association business, Eveleth said. Eveleth said that corporate visitors spend the most money at the Renaissance.

Young said that hoteliers’ top priority is corporate meetings followed by government, sports and SMERF (social, military, education, religious and fraternal), associations and group tours.

“It’s all about how we develop strategies for these different areas and different types of products (hotels),” Young said. “It’s not a one-size fits all strategy.”

The Renaissance has a director of sales; director of marketing; four sales managers and two executive meeting managers. Two of the sales managers focus on SMERF. The executive meeting managers “book it and cook it,” Eveleth said. “You call them – it’s a one-stop shop. They book your rooms; they book your catering; they book your meeting space; any audio visual – they handle the whole thing.”

The hoteliers are optimistic about 2012 although Eveleth said that the Renaissance “is scrambling a little bit” because fewer room nights were booked heading into 2012.

“It’s cyclical,” he said about the hotel industry. “Companies lay off people and get smaller and then the economy gets better and they begin to make a lot more money. Then they look to expand and start hiring. Then they make a whole bunch of money and want to give rewards and do training. That’s where the hotels come in.”

With a second hotel, Curry is excited about 2012. She will no longer be limited to groups of 20 or less. The new hotel means that Curry can accommodate groups of 50 to 60. “I’ll have meeting space and I’ll have food and beverage.”

The Embassy is projecting an 8 percent increase in room nights this year, but that’s mainly because a major, $2 million renovation took away about 8,000 room nights in 2011, Quatrochi said. He said all the 237 rooms were renovated, including replacing concrete and drywall in the bathrooms and adding new fixtures. The rooms have new nightstands, dressers and tables.

“We are seeing a flat demand for 2012, but we have increased our prices slightly and we do believe we will get an ROI (return on investment) from the renovation,” he said.

Hathcock is positive about 2012. “We feel good about 2012 and I think the next couple of years and the building of the new sports facility will be very important and that’s true for downtown as well as other parts of the city.”