Being at the center of the sports universe was supposed to mean big dollars, but many Pinellas County beach hotels expect flat or below-normal occupancy rates over Super Bowl weekend, according to dismayed tourism officials.
It's a far different picture, they say, from 2001 when the big game at Raymond James Stadium between the Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants had hotels jammed and streets of beach communities clogged with visitors.
"I am so disappointed," said Sheila Cole, executive director of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce. "The area is not going to see the financial influx that was hoped for from this Super Bowl."
Cole said the lukewarm demand for rooms may be rooted in the dismal economy. Or perhaps Cardinals fans in balmy Arizona, unlike fans of teams up North, aren't as motivated to escape the cold and visit Tampa Bay, she said.
But sabotage or misinformation may also be at play. Cole said that several days ago, rumors began to spread that the beach hotels were booked, and that the only viable option for Super Bowl visitors is to stay in Orlando.
Cole said she had suspicions but no proof that other tourism agencies in the state were responsible.
On Wednesday, Cole did damage control, asking radio stations in the Phoenix and Pittsburgh markets to let fans know there are rooms to be had on Pinellas beaches.
Danielle Courtenay, chief marketing officer of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said her office had done nothing to undermine the hoped-for Super Bowl tourism bump around Tampa Bay.
"Absolutely not," Courtenay said. "We have not been doing anything to persuade people to stay in one place rather than another."
Martin Smith, managing director of the Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa in Belleair, said he had set overnight rates for a standard room for Super Bowl weekend at $210. But Monday, with demand low, he cut the price to $139, his regular March rate.
He also reduced minimum-stay packages from four nights to two Tuesday. Martin said travelers have seized on the two-day deal and he's not as worried as he was when the week began.
Still, Martin said, an occupancy rate of 70 to 80 percent is projected for this weekend. That's normal for this time of year, and Martin said he and others in the business had hoped for much more.
"It's still going to be good," he said. "The people are going to be here. But it's not going to be the dream that everyone imagined."
Not all hotels are hurting. Tourism officials in Hillsborough County said rooms are tough to find. Management at the Don CeSar Beach Resort in St. Pete Beach say the hotel is booked. And the Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club in St. Petersburg is near capacity, with no rooms Saturday night.
Other than the economy, why no bump on the beaches?
Some business owners said they'd hoped for a Super Bowl clash between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles, a team known for its enthusiastic fan base.
Martin Cole, owner of the Red Roof Inn on Clearwater Beach, said he saw cancellations rise after the Cardinals beat the Eagles on Jan. 18 to reach the championship game.
"I think it would have been better to have the two Pennsylvania teams here," Cole said. "Unfortunately, the Eagles didn't cut it."
Cole said his inn was full for the 2001 Super Bowl, but he expects only 50 percent occupancy this weekend.
Clyde Smith, general manager of the Bilmar Reach Resort in Treasure Island, said bookings for the weekend will be better than normal for this time of year, but short of expectations. One reason, Smith suggested, is corporate executives tending to their images.
In late 2008, Smith said, corporations dumped 1,000 extra rooms they had booked in Tampa for the Super Bowl. That last-minute supply increase, he said, cut deeply into the spillover from across the bay that Pinellas beach hotels had banked on. "I can't imagine being that CEO asking to sign that check for my guys to go while you were asking for bailout money," Smith said.
Will Van Sant can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4166.