|By Bob Asmussen, The News-Gazette,
Champaign-Urbana, Ill.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jun. 3, 2008 - You might have noticed a building under construction on the south end of the Illinois campus. Lots of brick. Important to Illinois football. Ready to open later in the summer.
Memorial Stadium? Sure, it's being redone. But it isn't the building in question here.
South of the Assembly Hall, the I Hotel and Conference Center is going up in a hurry. The property, which includes a Houlihan's Restaurant, is scheduled to open Aug. 11, a few days ahead of the original plan.
"As you can see when you drive by, everything is coming together pretty quickly," said Andrea Ruedi, CEO for Fox Development Corp. and the I Hotel.
The I will be done almost a month before the Illinois football team reopens Memorial Stadium.
Don't plan on staying at the I during the 2008 season. Unless you were smart enough to book months in advance.
All six home football weekends are full at the 126-room hotel.
"It didn't take long for us to get filled on those weekends," Ruedi said. "We don't want people to lose hope. We are keeping a waiting list. We've been taking bookings since last summer." The I isn't your average gameday hotel. Ruedi said the hotel is being built to "four-diamond standards." "We're trying to make the whole facility have a more modern and upscale appeal to it," Ruedi said.
"The community as a whole needed a facility like this. With the number of international travelers who come to this community, travelers who come from larger markets, they have a certain expectation of where they would like to stay. We would hope we would be able to meet that expectation." There isn't a closer hotel to Memorial Stadium. Go out the door of the I and you're a couple of Anthony Santella punts away from your seats.
"We'll definitely be taking care of our guests in regards to parking," Ruedi said. "Houlihan's' patrons will get top priority on parking. We want to be able to accommodate anybody. If somebody's eating at Houlihan's and then wants to walk from there, we want to be able to accommodate those folks without having others taking their parking spots." During home football weekends, Gameday Sports will sell Illini merchandise in the I lobby. Ruedi expects business to be brisk.
Actually, the I isn't the only hotel out of rooms for the 2008 season. According to Scott Hockman, executive director of the Champaign County Convention & Visitors Bureau, four local properties are full for the six-game Illinois football season. And many others are close.
For the four Illinois games against Big Ten schools, C-U is basically sold out. That means a two-night minimum the weekends of Oct. 10-11 (Minnesota), Oct. 17-18 (Indiana), Oct. 31-Nov. 1 (Iowa) and Nov. 14-15 (Ohio State). At a premium rate.
"That's definitely a good start for the community," said Tim Izard, Fairfield Inn general manager and president of the Champaign-Urbana Hotel Lodging Association. "It's been a long time coming since we've seen that. We all went through the bad times. We're just waiting on these good times. We hope it continues on for a while." With the addition of the I and a new Wingate Inn being built near Market Place Mall, Champaign-Urbana will have 3,029 rooms. That's enough for a typical weeknight but won't cover visitors for Illinois football games, graduation weekend and other special events. When everything is booked, Hockman and his staff will refer visitors to other communities in the county and beyond.
Unlike other Big Ten cities, the rates aren't being doubled or tripled. The bump for special weekends is more modest, Izard said.
"It's not outrageous," Izard said. "We're not out of line.
"Big Ten games, we do have special event prices, just like anybody else. But you look at some of these places (the Illini) go and the number of hotels they have in the town. You go to Bloomington, Indiana. They've only got three or four major hotels. Unlike us, where we have 13 to 15 and two more being built. There are plenty of rooms here in town. Indiana, you go down there and you're paying nearly triple." There are rooms available for Illinois' two nonconference games, Sept. 6 against Eastern Illinois and Sept. 13 against Louisiana-Lafayette. Hockman and Izard expect those two weekends to be sold out as well.
Izard has been at Fairfield Inn for more than a decade. He can remember football weekends when the hotel wasn't full for either night. Last year's 9-4 Rose Bowl season makes a difference, he said.
"There have been years here where we have gone as far as discounting on our regular rate on a football weekend," Izard said.
Ron Zook has been good for business.
"Definitely," Izard said. "And I'm hoping he's going to be around for a few more years."
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