TAMPA — Even if the crowd at Super Bowl 55 is reduced to just 20 percent capacity, the region’s hotels are expecting a desperately needed boost from guests that weekend.
A quick online search for hotel rooms in Tampa the weekend of Feb. 7 shows options are sparse. It’s a good sign during a period when local occupancy rates have barely cleared 50 percent since bottoming out at the start of the pandemic.
But if the game was any other season — if COVID-19 wasn’t looming over the country’s biggest sporting event — rooms would already booked solid all the way over to Orlando and along the Pinellas beaches.
“For hotels who have been managing a very difficult season, the game offers the opportunity to begin to see an injection of revenue that no other event brings to the table,” said Bob Morrison, the director of the Hillsborough County Hotel and Motel Association.
But just how much of an injection is still in limbo.
The National Football League said last month it was considering a plan that would keep Raymond James Stadium at only 20 percent capacity for the big game, with the possibility of expanding it later.
The NFL, corporate sponsors and other groups draft massive contracts with hoteliers to block off thousands of rooms far ahead of the game — that’s why there are so few rooms open on online booking sites.
“Normally in Florida, January and early February is the beginning of peak season,” said Joe Collier, president of Mainsail Lodging and Development. "The NFL has to hold these room blocks to control that inventory because, in Florida, we’re going to fill up, sell out and be very busy anyway. This year, that’s not necessarily the case. Hotels have to be nimble.”
Hotels are eager to sign deals with the NFL. Typically, the contracts require hotels reserve a number of rooms without a guarantee that reserved block will all be filled. In any other Super Bowl, selling out the rooms blocked off would be a sure thing. But because of the pandemic, it’s less clear.
Morrison said all of the private contracts between Hillsborough hotels and the NFL are still active. Each hotel block goes to a different group or corporation, from players to the media.
Collier, whose hotel group developed and operates the Epicurean in Hyde Park, declined to give the hotel’s Super Bowl reservation details, but said it has an NFL deal tied to people who set up and run the game. The Epicurean is a boutique 137-room hotel, so it would easily be able to back-fill any rooms not rented through the hotel block if needed. Collier, who is also on the Super Bowl host committee, said it’s hotels with hundreds of rooms that are watching closely to what plays out.
“I think hotels are going to be busy, but it may not be absolutely crazy, shut out, sold out, have-to-know-somebody to get a room,” Collier said. “Still, it’s a shot in the arm for everyone in the market and we need it.”
Those hotels without NFL contracts are negotiating with sponsors and companies that are still debating if they’ll be coming to Tampa at all.
“We had promises, prior options we are still waiting on," said David Fortune, senior sales manager at the Hotel Haya in Ybor City. "A lot of the area is in the same boat, still kind of waiting.”
Before COVID-19, it wouldn’t have been a guessing game.
The Hotel Haya just opened its doors in September. Kristine Dunleavy, the Haya’s director of sales, expects the hotel to sell out its rooms that weekend. Usually, the hotel handles writing up contracts for group stays. But with the pandemic, more companies are looking to draft their own contracts in case the virus cancels the game, Dunleavy said.
What’s even harder to predict is the demand for food and beverage. Related concerts and other pop-up events usually crowd a host city, but Dunleavy isn’t sure how many of those will take place because of the pandemic.
Less foot traffic means fewer fans making restaurant reservations at the Haya’s Flor Fina or grabbing a quick coffee at its Café Quiquiriqui.
What the Super Bowl has done already is push the cost of rooms up higher that weekend than they’ve been since the pandemic began.
The Country Inn and Suites by the airport, for example, would cost $2,400 for three nights Super Bowl weekend, according to booking site Hotels.com.
“They’re competitive healthy rates,” Dunleavy said. “But they’re not astronomical."
Collier said it probably won’t be until a week before the game that Tampa Bay has a clear understanding of how big a crowd to expect. A team with a large fan base making it to the Super Bowl could mean a flood of visitors, while the Bucs making it to the big game would mean fewer than usual.
Collier is optimistic and looking forward to creative outdoor Super Bowl events centered around the Tampa Riverwalk, where it’s safer for people to gather, including a yacht village where television crews will be broadcasting near the Convention Center.
“Everybody here has significant, massive investments in these buildings, in these hotels,” said Collier. “It’s not like anyone has a choice. We have to plow ahead. We have to do the best we can to get people interested in our hotels and coming to Tampa."
Anxious Tampa Bay hoteliers will be eager to welcome them.