TAMPA — As a Western New York native, Todd Kinney was always going to root for his hometown Buffalo Bulls in their playoff against the Kansas City Chiefs. But it was the other championship game at made things more emotionally complicated for the Tampa Bay hotelier.
Kinney, the general manager of the newly opened Hyatt House Tampa Airport / Westshore hotel, was on the phone Sunday with representatives of the Green Bay Packers. If the Wisconsin team had beaten the hometown Bucs, Kinney would have had a sold-out hotel during and leading up to the Super Bowl.
“We had the contracts in hand, ready to go,” he said.
Green Bay wanted Kinney’s just-opened, 145-room hotel — all of it — to house the team’s family and friends had they made it to the Super Bowl at Raymond James Stadium.
When Tampa Bay clinched the National Football Conference title, Kinney was proud of the city he’s called home for the last several years. But it also meant no Packers contract, no guaranteed sold-out hotel, no reprieve from the COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged the hotel industry.
Just a week out from the big game, tourism experts are still not entirely sure what to expect for hotel bookings. There has never been a Super Bowl during a pandemic, and the host-city’s team has never been part of the matchup.
Typically, the Super Bowl draws fans from afar, even if they don’t have game tickets, just to revel in the experience. This one features not only the local team, but an opponent that won it last year.
For Tampa Bay hotel operators, it’s hard not to pine for what might have come from a Bills-Packers matchup, even if concerns over the health risks of air travel and crowds was bound to tamp down the festivities.
“It’s not the best scenario for us hoteliers because it doesn’t bring anybody in from another city for three to four days,” said Ron McAnaugh, the general manager at another just-opened hotel, the J.W. Marriott in downtown Tampa. “I’m happy for (the Bucs) and happy to be a city of champions … but it’s kind of a double-edged sword.”
The official, and socially distanced outdoor NFL Experience, an interactive fan event, has already sold out of a limited number of tickets and Raymond James will only be about a third full to curtail fan interaction. And even if the city’s bustling with its own Bucs fans, most won’t be grabbing a room because they already live nearby.
“This is uncharted territory,” said Laurence Chalip, a professor of sports management at George Mason University. “We are going to learn a lot in the process of this happening. The forecasts are guesses at this point.”
Several new hotels had timed their grand openings with the Super Bowl. Despite that, the pre-pandemic expectation of demand for rooms was so great that the official bid from Tampa to hold the Super Bowl noted hotels available as far away as Orlando. Now, Super Bowl related stays likely won’t stretch beyond parts of Pinellas County.
Without any big blocks of rooms reserved, Kinney at Hyatt House will rely on a mix of Super Bowl workers and yet-to-book fans to fill out his hotel. He said the Bucs are starting to pick up small blocks, too. With the hotel’s proximity to the airport, Kinney said he is optimistic the hotel will fill up as game day draws closer.
“We understood as an industry that this game would not track historical trends,” said Bob Morrison, the director of the Hillsborough County Hotel and Motel Association. “Our expectations, because of the pandemic, were already adjusted even before we knew the Bucs would be one of the participants.”
The hotel stays just won’t reach as far as they could have, but there are still plenty of bright spots for an area that has had an average occupancy rate of around 50 percent for the last several months.
Joe Collier, the head of Mainsail Lodging and Development, said the region’s most central hotels are largely booked with people tied to putting on the game.
The Karol Hotel, which Collier’s team runs in Feather Sound, will be booked solid hosting Transportation Security Administration officers and their highly trained dog partners aiding in Super Bowl security. The Epicurean, a Mainsail hotel in South Tampa, will host 128 vaccinated health care workers, each sponsored by the 32 NFL teams to attend the Super Bowl, according to Collier.
McAnaugh said the J.W. Marriott is hosting a slew of NFL employees, many of whom have already begun their stays.
The Super Bowl comes as what would typically be Tampa Bay’s peak season is about to begin. February through April is usually when the state explodes with tourists and spring-breakers.
Leaders with the region’s tourism bureaus Visit Tampa Bay and Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater both have said the added marketing value of having the Bucs in Tampa’s Super Bowl game is immeasurable. But the added attention may pay dividends over time for hoteliers, rather than during the rush of the game itself.
“We are starting to see the press really light up about Tampa,” said Visit Tampa Bay CEO Santiago Corrada. “That only helps draw more visitors here.”
Hoteliers are left waiting to see how things shake out. McAnaugh said he has started noticing bookings for the J.W. Marriott coming in for the spring and summer — the longest lead time in bookings that he has seen since the pandemic began.
Once Florida reopened the beaches and so-called non-essential businesses, hotel operators noticed the time ahead of reservation shrinking down to a couple of weeks, if not days. It has made it difficult for hotels to plan out long-term finances and staffing because so many were forced to lay off employees.
McAnaugh sees people starting to plan trips farther into the future as a good sign traveler confidence is slowly returning, but he is still cautious.
“The last thing I want to do is bring back people now and then go back down that path of furloughing people and laying them off,” McAnaugh said.
That’s why hoteliers are hopeful the Super Bowl attention matched with continued vaccine roll out could have things truly picking up and steadying again by summer.
Maybe then, they can start bringing back employees who have been out of work for months.
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