|By Douglas Hanks, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Aug. 18, 2009 - Will the AIG effect stretch into the first down of the Super Bowl?
That's a major question looming over preparations for the big game's return to South Florida next February amid a backlash against lavish corporate travel and entertainment.
The National Football League is scaling back its hotel bookings for the Feb. 7 championship at Dolphin Stadium, and caterers report less demand for the kind of opulent parties that define Super Bowl weekend -- the year's most intense stretch of corporate entertaining.
Named after the insurance giant that sent a sales team to a five-star California resort days after receiving an $85 billion federal bailout, the AIG effect now represents corporate America's general reluctance to live large during an economic downturn.
"People are saying: 'Can we get away with wine instead of champagne?' That kind of stuff," said Carol Bell, whose Miami event and public relations firm, the Patton Group, has begun signing Super Bowl contracts. "It's not as flashy."
No one doubts the days leading up to Super Bowl XLIV will be a madcap cluster of exclusive soirees, posh corporate receptions and large-scale bashes as the year's biggest sporting event rolls into town.
And the economy is unlikely to make a dent on the global media exposure a Super Bowl brings a host city.
CBS and ESPN already have talked to Miami Beach about broadcasts from Ocean Drive, and next year's game will get an added boost when South Florida becomes the first city to host the Pro Bowl a week before the Super Bowl.
But a sour corporate mood can remake a Super Bowl for the businesses that usually thrive on the game's packed hotels and overflowing social calendar.
Last year's game in Tampa was seen as a toned-down affair, with Playboy and Sports Illustrated canceling their signature parties. According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers analysis, overall spending was off by about 15 percent, to $150 million.
The disappointing numbers left the 2007 Super Bowl -- held in Dolphin Stadium -- as the most lavish to date, with spending estimated at a record $195 million, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Organizers are confident this Super Bowl will be more of a draw than Tampa's, given the recovering economy and Miami's appeal as a hot party spot. But breaking 2007's spending record will be difficult, and early signs point to weaker demand for Super Bowl trips.
Barton Weiss, a national caterer and event producer based in Miami, said his Super Bowl inquiries are down this year. Companies asking for proposals don't want to broadcast their high budgets.
"Nobody wants to be flashy, especially now," said Weiss, whose company handled decorations for parties at last weekend's PGA Championship in Minnesota. He said he expected more financial fallout at that event's circuit of parties, but Weiss still predicts a 10 percent to 20 percent drop in corporate spending for Super Bowl XLIV.
"The demand is much less," Weiss said. "And the demand that is here is very conservative."
In recent weeks, the NFL reduced its hotel reservations for the Super Bowl six months before the game. The league droppped 17 hotels in Miami and Miami Beach for a network of hotels it lined up in advance for sponsors, media and league executives, according to Barry Moskowitz, vice president of sales at the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Some hotels, such as Brickell Avenue's Mandarin Oriental, were dropped entirely, and others, including downtown's Doubletree Grand, saw their NFL reservations cut significantly.
Frank Supovitz, senior vice president of events for the NFL, said the league has reduced its advanced reservations from about 17,000 rooms to 10,000 in hotels from Palm Beach County to Miami.
The dropped rooms, he said, largely reflect a shift north to Fort Lauderdale in Super Bowl activities.
The NFL headquarters and media center will both be in Fort Lauderdale, so the league needs fewer rooms in the Miami area, Supovitz said. And he noted the NFL routinely shrinks its room reservations in the weeks leading up to a Super Bowl, often on a scale similar to the recent purge in Miami-Dade.
This year, he said, the NFL agreed to give hotels more of a head start in selling the dropped rooms.
But Supovitz said the economy was at work, too. With hotels discounting to fill beds, Super Bowl sponsors and others can find better deals on their own rather than accepting the rates the NFL negotiated two years ago.
"There will be roughly the same number of hotel rooms occupied," he said. "The difference may be what they pay for a hotel room."
After jacking up rates to sky-high levels, many hotels in 2007 were left with empty rooms; they dropped prices as the game approached. Party planners also found that competition for reception space wasn't as stiff as predicted.
"A week out, I was getting e-mails from almost every venue I work with, saying 'we're still available for last-minute clients,' " Rachelle Stone, a North Miami Beach event planner, said of the 2007 Super Bowl.
Still, the big game brought big profits. Room rates across Miami-Dade soared 26 percent in Miami-Dade that February and 20 percent in Broward, according to Smith Travel Research.
Much of that markup comes from corporations willing to pay top dollar to house important clients and sales executives. If those bookings decline, it could leave more availability for others hoping to see a Super Bowl in person, said John Webb, senior vice president at the Greater Fort Lauderdale tourism bureau.
At this Super Bowl, Webb said, "I think you'll have more true fans."
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