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    Crunch time for Super Bowl guests

    The big game was awarded to Tampa without first securing hotel commitments, which is forcing corporate high-rollers to Orlando for top-flight rooms.

    By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD and ERNEST HOOPER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 19, 2000


    TAMPA -- Some visitors seeking deluxe hotel accommodations for Super Bowl XXXV will have to look east. The deluge of guests hitting town in January, coupled with a lack of guaranteed space in top-flight hotels, is forcing corporate high rollers to Orlando for the poshest digs.

    Jim Steeg, the National Football League's director of special events, said Monday the shortage stemmed in part from the unusual way the NFL awarded Tampa Bay the Super Bowl in November 1996. Steeg was in Tampa on Monday for an information session with local news media.

    In a bid for the 2000 game, Tampa Bay secured commitments from area hotels to supply the NFL thousands of rooms in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Orlando. The game ultimately went to Atlanta, prompting Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer to angrily accuse the league of breaking a promise to deliver a Super Bowl after a new $168-million stadium had been approved.

    So NFL owners gave Tampa Bay the 2001 game, but that deal was signed without commitments from hotels. While many hotels came through anyway, promising blocs to the NFL, some -- including luxury hotels -- did not.

    "This game was awarded in kind of a convoluted fashion," Steeg said. "They were going after the 2000 game and got the 2001 game without any commitments. So out of a number of the hotels, we probably got what you wouldn't call your normal convention allocation of rooms, which is 75 to 80 percent of the house." Some hotels didn't give the NFL any rooms, he said.

    Michael Kelly, who runs the Tampa Bay Super Bowl XXXV Task Force, said some hotels decided to try to sell rooms on their own, or through tour package vendors. He said there would be no shortage of mid- to low-level hotels available locally, but agreed top-flight accommodations will be scarce.

    "The quantity's not a problem. It's just a matter of satisfying some clients' expectations," Kelly said. "Only so many groups can stay in the inventory that we have."

    Kelly said the local shortage, and the need to channel people to Orlando, did not come as a surprise. "It's nothing new," he said. "It's been a basis of our bid in the past that some groups have been placed in the Disney area."

    Kelly was unable to say how many hoped-for rooms did not materialize locally, or how many Super Bowl visitors would be turning to Orlando.

    Steeg, the NFL's special events director, said a number of local hotels had gone "above and beyond the call of duty," including the Marriott Waterfront, Hyatt Downtown, Hyatt Westshore, Wyndham Westshore, Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa, Sheraton Sand Key and the Saddlebrook Resort. The Marriott Waterfront is the official league hotel, while the NFC team will be housed at the Wyndham Westshore and the AFC team at the Hyatt Westshore.

    Still, "Orlando is sitting over there scarfing everything up if they can," Steeg said. "Ford, Coke, Chrysler, Miller, even Anheuser-Busch, which is housed here, are all staying in Orlando rather than stay in Hillsborough and Pinellas."

    With tickets priced at $350, the Super Bowl draws an affluent crowd seeking full-service hotels.

    In the 10 years since Tampa Bay last hosted the Super Bowl, the need for such rooms has increased significantly, in part because of the growing involvement of corporate sponsors. There were only nine tents in the NFL's corporate hospitality area at the 1991 game; this time, there will be at least 20 tents in an 800,000-square-foot tent city.

    "CBS alone is using 1,900 hotel rooms," Steeg said.

    Steeg worries about Orlando-based visitors who will have to trek across I-4 for the menu of local events, including Gasparilla. They will leave "without really having the full experience of being here," Steeg said.

    Norwood Smith, vice president of sales for the Tampa Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau, the group that made the bid for the Super Bowl, said first crack at the best hotels goes to the NFL, players, staff and the media, with little left over for corporate guests.

    "We could certainly use more five-diamond properties," he said.

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