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South Bend hotels fill up quickly

Janice Flynn | Thursday, September 15, 2005

Christopher Tomei has worked at Indiana hotels for the past six years, most recently as the general manager of Hampton Inn in LaPorte, a 35-mile, 40-minute drive from South Bend.

He was shocked when he received a call this week asking to reserve nine rooms for the Michigan State football weekend.

“I had to ask him seriously if he was joking,” Tomei said.

Tomei knows that football season is peak hotel season in north Indiana. South Bend hotels can fill up in spring and summer months, and hotels up to an hour away can see Notre Dame-clad fans streaming in and out of their doors.

“As I can gather, from border to border, from Ohio to Illinois, hotels raise their rates but almost always fill up,” Tomei said, whose hotel is completely filled with Notre Dame fans this weekend.

At local hotels, the system is down to a science. Throughout the season, they track each weekend’s room occupancy and requests in order to gauge next year’s rates at end-of-the-season meetings.

As football season draws nearer, reservation managers keep boards of vacancies mapped out next to their phone, and stay in constant communication with each other.

Hotels have a vested interest in following Notre Dame football so closely, as it generates a large portion of their revenue.

For hotels that normally charge $100 per room per night, the standard football weekend rate is close to $225 per night with a two night minimum, although prices can reach up to $300.

For full-service hotels, as well as hotels on the edge of campus, prices can go up to $500 per night.

Out of town hotels do not tend to raise prices as high.

Hotel managers chalk it up to supply-and-demand, the fundamental principle of hotel management.

“Prices for hotels are usually generally comparable to other hotels in the area, it’s a basic market strategy according to basic rates,” said Vince Willis, assistant general manager of the Hampton Inn on West University Drive. “We have the prices that other hotels are charging within our range, we want to be competitive.”

While it may seem like highway robbery to some, even the most high-end hotels find that customers are willing to pay the prices.

“Price resistance is negligible, of about 500 people that tried to get in about 20 said no because of price,” said Gina Shumaker, director of marketing at the downtown Marriott hotel. “That’s less than 10 percent.”

Although hotels customarily oversell to compensate for cancellations, local hotels rarely oversell for football weekends to avoid “walking” situations – finding guests a vacancy in a closer, comparable hotel.

“If you’re ever in a walking situation, you’re walking folks to Chicago,” Schumaker said.

Tomei, the general manager in LaPorte, said even when their hotel is booked, the common practice is to refer customers elsewhere.

“Last year when I called the 1-800 number for all chain hotels … there was at least a 100- to 200-mile radius where I was trying to find people a place to stay, but couldn’t,” he said. “It’s kind of a hard situation, the guests are absolutely exhausted.”

While the idea of building more hotels gets tossed around, hotel mangers say lower occupancy rates during the rest of the year would make that plan unattractive.

“Are you going to build a hotel just for football weekends? You don’t build a church for Easter Sunday,” Schumacher said. “If you’re an owner of a hotel, are you going to fill it up halfway for most of the year?”

For those who don’t want to call dozens of hotels, the South Bend/Mishawaka Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, an initiative of the Chamber of Commerce, serves as a link between 34 hotels and guests in search of vacancies.

“Probably beginning in July we begin to keep track [of hotels],” said Marijo Martinec, Director of Communication and Public Relations. “Based on when tickets are released, we begin to see a spike in the calls. We are in touch with hotels constantly now, we monitor how many rooms they have available.

“We don’t keep a track list of, say, Joe Smith from Nebraska’s coming into town and wants a room. We say ‘Check back in with us, hotels will call us if they have a cancellation.'”

Rooms for this weekend’s game as well as the Oct. 15 game against USC are virtually sold out, Marinec said, but there are some rooms available in town for later games.

Hotel managers agree that when the team does better, cancellations are fewer.

They are still receiving calls for this weekend’s game, but now fans are starting to look forward to next season.

“Yesterday we had 63 calls total, it had a lot to do with football, mainly requests for ’06 games, especially Penn State and Purdue,” said Trish Stewart-Corwin, reservation manager at the Inn at St. Mary’s.

Rona Brenner, general manager of the Jamison hotel, said that their wait-list is still “a mile long” for this season.

“The phone just, literally, it does ring off the hook,” she said.