S. Florida hotels test limits of Super Bowl mania
BY DOUGLAS HANKS
For a lesson in supply, demand and the Super Bowl, call the Dorset Hotel's reservations desk.
A Saturday night stay at the 52-room South Beach hotel costs $99 in the middle of January. Two weeks later, during Super Bowl weekend, the same room rents for $800.
''We started in the neighborhood of $400,'' said general manager Francisco Quiroga. ``They sold in one minute.''
Three months before the Feb. 4 football championship in Dolphin Stadium, South Florida hotels are testing the limits of Super Bowl mania.
Organizers predict Super Bowl XLI will draw 125,000 visitors. And with the number of budget hotels declining and room rates already hitting record levels year-round, the lodging industry sees the Super Bowl as an unprecedented opportunity to flex its pricing muscles.
A Crowne Plaza near the Sawgrass Mills outlet mall wants $700 a night for Super Bowl weekend, more than double its $299 rate two weeks earlier. In the same 14-day stretch, rooms at the Coconut Grove Hampton Inn climb from $199 to $649.
And the Conrad Miami, a downtown business hotel, added more than $1,000 to its mid-January rate, with the cheapest rooms renting for $1,599 during Super Bowl.
''What hotels are trying to charge is absolutely ridiculous,'' said Robert Tuchman, president of TSE Sports & Entertainment, a New York company selling Super Bowl travel packages. ``Super Bowl comes to town, and everyone thinks they hit the jackpot.''
TSE itself offers a measure of the kind of spending frenzy the travel industry expects for the biggest day in U.S. sports.
The company sells a four-night Super Bowl package at South Beach's Albion hotel, including an upper-level ticket to the game, for $6,000 a head. A slot on the guest list for Maxim magazine's sought-after Super Bowl party will cost another $1,750.
The National Football League has already reserved one out of every five rooms in the South Florida region for staff, sponsors and the media. Competition for the remaining rooms starts early: TSE began locking up hotel rooms three years ago for its Super Bowl packages.
Corporate America drives most of the demand, since Super Bowl is considered a prime event for entertaining key clients and rewarding top producers. And after two years of underwhelming Super Bowl hosts -- humble Jacksonville and wintry Detroit -- experts predict pent-up corporate spending for travel to South Florida.
''The demand for Detroit was about the lowest we've had in I don't know how many years. Just because it was Detroit,'' Glen Bynum, president of the Golden Tours sports-travel company, said of last year's Super Bowl host.
But travel wholesalers, industry watchers and even hoteliers themselves aren't convinced Super Bowl can deliver the sky-high rates currently on the market.
PLENTY OF OPTIONS
With roughly 90,000 hotel rooms available between Miami and West Palm Beach -- almost triple what Detroit offered -- travelers will have plenty of options. The NFL's official travel agency thinks fans won't mind an even longer commute on game day: Its website offers Super Bowl rooms in hotels as far away as Key Largo and Freeport, Bahamas.
A recent Miami Herald survey of 50 South Florida hotels found half had rooms to sell during Super Bowl weekend. ''It surprises me you found 25 hotels that still have rooms,'' said Brian Wilder, president of Premiere Sports Travel in Carrie, N.C.
Unlike in 1999, when Super Bowl last came to South Florida, there could be stiff competition for deep-pocketed fans. In the last six years, dozens of budget hotels have given way to luxury condominium projects, while Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton and other five-star operators have moved into the Miami area.
''Will they be able to sustain those prices? We'll find out,'' said Kathleen Davis, president of the Sports Management Research Institute, a Fort Lauderdale firm hired by local organizers to quantify the Super Bowl's economic impact. ``You've got a lot of high-end hotels this time around. It's very competitive.''
Of the hotels in the Miami Herald survey selling rooms, most quoted rates at least double what they were charging two weeks before Super Bowl for a comparable room.
Extremes book-ended the survey: The Haddon Hall South Beach wanted $125 for a room during Super Bowl, the same as in January. Nearby, the Sagamore offered a bungalow for $3,695 a night. Two weeks earlier, it could be had for $1,145.
The premium doesn't end at the room rate, since most hotels require a minimum four-day stay for Super Bowl weekend. South Beach's ultra-luxury Setai went farther, imposing a seven-day Super Bowl minimum for its $1,100 rooms.
Rate hikes touch on a sensitive subject for local organizers, who face pressure from the National Football League to discourage excessive price increases.
Before awarding South Florida the 2007 game, the NFL secured its 18,000 rooms subject to a pricing formula using 2003 rates as a baseline.
Three years ago, the NFL also began offering fan housing through its own online travel agency, citing concerns about price gouging from the private sector. High rates also reflect an ongoing downside to South Florida's ambitions as a luxury tourist destination, with lodging costs irking everyone from international travel wholesalers to organizers of Miami Beach's Art Basel festival.
''The escalation of rates over the five years has certainly caught the eye of many of our visitors,'' said Robert Goodman, spokesman for the international art fair, which first came to Miami Beach in 2002. ``It could be a factor whereby foreign and national visitors might take a second look regarding coming annually.''
Michael Kelly, a veteran Super Bowl organizer tapped to run South Florida's preparations, said rates haven't been a problem for the NFL. Since Super Bowl falls during peak vacation season in South Florida, rooms are bound to sell for a premium -- particularly given the luxury lodging available.
''Those high prices don't surprise me,'' he said of the Miami Herald rate survey.
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