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College Basketball's Final Four a Slam Dunk for Downtown Detroit Hotels

By Mary Francis Masson, Detroit Free PressMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

March 8, 2009 --Weeks of March Madness stand between determining whether the Spartans will dance with the Tar Heels or the Blue Devils will curse the Huskies. But well before anyone knows who college basketball's Final Four are, it's clear downtown Detroit's economy will win big.

The impact of the NCAA's marquee event already is visible and significant: the Big Dance has done what the Detroit auto show could not in January -- book up all but a handful of downtown Detroit's nearly 5,000 hotel rooms.

January brought a scaled-down auto show, and the nation's biggest decline in occupancy for Detroit-area hotels. The three casinos all reported declines in revenue.

The Final Four, with its predicted $50-million impact, has been like a bright basketball looming on the horizon.

"This is the type of event that keeps us on the map," said Bill Aprill, director of sales and marketing for the Doubletree Fort Shelby hotel, which opened in December. As of Friday, all of his 203 rooms were booked for the April 4-6 event.

"This is definitely an extraordinary event," Aprill said. "It would fill the city no matter what."

But the fact that it has filled downtown, even though 1,056 new rooms have been added to the market just since October, is a very good sign.

According to Smith Travel Research, a Tennessee-based firm, Detroit had the worst drop in occupancy rates among the top 25 hotel markets. Detroit's occupancy dropped 18.9% in January 2009 from January 2008, just ahead of a 17.9% drop in Seattle. But the addition of new rooms at several hotels is part of the reason for that decline.

"In these trying economic times, the fact that we're going to have a solid four days fully booked is huge," said Scott Stinebaugh, director of sales and marketing for the Westin Book Cadillac, which opened in October. Stinebaugh said the Final Four bookings represent $1-million revenue for his property.

"This is an economic shot in the arm. The effect it will leave behind is long-lasting."

Coaches converge

That's what Dave Beachnau and the Detroit Metro Sports Commission is counting on. Beachnau, executive director of the group, said up to 80,000 people are expected to visit Detroit during the event, including those attending the National Association of Basketball Coaches convention, much of which will be at Cobo Center.

"The hotels are full now, and we don't even know who the four teams are yet," Beachnau said, but added suburban hotels still have rooms available.

Suburbs, Windsor get boost

Ron Tracy, associate dean of the school of business at Oakland University, said there will be sellouts at Oakland and Macomb county hotels in the next few weeks.

"This is absolutely what you should expect ... there will be some serious money spent around," he said. "What this shows is that if we have the right event, the rooms will fill."

Although this Final Four is big, Beachnau and others aren't predicting the kind of numbers that came along with 2006's Super Bowl XL. That event brought an estimated $273.9 million to the Detroit area.

Some estimates indicate San Antonio got about a $75-million to $80-million boost after hosting last year's Final Four, said Jeff Stoltman, professor of marketing at Wayne State University. But what's important is building a consistent track record of hosting big events and doing it well, Stoltman said, citing the Super Bowl, the Major League Baseball All-Star Game and the Ryder Cup.

"There's a spiritual uplift in the community that we can do things on a national stage."

College basketball has fans worldwide, Stoltman said, so the Final Four can help build positive images of Detroit.

Windsor's happy to help, said Michael Chantler, director of membership services and communications for the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Windsor, Essex County and Pelee Island.

Chantler said 4,000 room nights already are booked in Windsor for the Final Four. About 8,000 room nights were booked for the Super Bowl.

Chantler said Transit Windsor plans to offer shuttle service that allows guests to register their identification documents and speed through customs back to the Final Four events across the border.

"This is right up there with the Super Bowl, the All-Star Game," he said "Every time Detroit brings a major event to downtown, Windsor benefits."

Each out-of-town visitor during the Super Bowl spent an average $363 a day, not including airfare, lodging or tickets to the game.

Tammy Carnrike, chief operating officer of the Detroit Regional Chamber, says that kind of boost helps start-up businesses as well as the big-name hotels.

It's confidence building for the locals and for those considering Detroit for their events.

"All of these major sports events give us the confidence that we can do this again and again," she said. "And we send people away talking positively about Detroit."

Contact MARY FRANCIS MASSON at 313-222-6159 or mmasson@freepress.com.

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Copyright (c) 2009, Detroit Free Press

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