Hoteliers hope soccer tourney means momentum for sports tourism in Lakewood Ranch area.
At 5 p.m. Sept. 4, soccer players darted across the fields of Premier Sports Campus, running and stretching to prepare for their first round in the Chargers Soccer Club’s Labor Day Tournament.
They played on every other field, and there were no benches on which players could sit. But the fact they were there amid the COVID-19 pandemic signals progress in the world of sports tourism, according to local hoteliers. It showed that the players and their parents feel enough safety precautions are in place that they can travel again.
“Small and mid-size tournaments are looking at this event, more like a benchmark, to see how it goes,” said Cecilia Maddi, the director of sales and marketing for Even Hotel Sarasota-Lakewood Ranch and the neighboring Fairfield Inn & Suites. “We are hoping if this is a successful event, it’ll bring more and more events back into the area.”
Maddi said the tournament helped fill her two hotels to full for only the second time since the pandemic began. The only other time they’ve been sold out was for the Fourth of July.
Sean Walter, the director of sports for the Bradenton Area Sports Commission, a division of the Manatee County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the tournament brought an estimated 1,500 players and generated about 1,100 hotel stays over Labor Day weekend.
Hoteliers said they are grateful for the business. In an area where sports tourism typically generates about 20% of their total business, Maddi said in August it was 5%.
Cindy Moore, the manager at Hyatt Place Lakewood Ranch, said the Labor Day tournament could be the start of forward momentum for the sports tourism industry.
“We’re hoping for it,” she said. “We love working with Premier, and we love the business it brings to the whole area.”
Tom Yorke, the manager of Country Inn & Suites Bradenton-Lakewood Ranch, agreed but noted that the opening, or not opening, of high school and collegiate sports to fans could have an impact. If COVID-19 cases trend upward, he said it could stifle any momentum gained in the sports tourism segment. Still, he’s hopeful people will be coming back.
Walter said he is seeing renewed interest in sports tourism in Manatee County. Although 43 sporting events countywide were canceled since the pandemic began, he’s had about 20 inquiries for future events, ranging from November 2020 to 2023.
Those calls started coming in June.
Walter said Premier Sports Campus’ size works to its advantage. With 23 multipurpose fields, it’s the only county-owned facility large enough to hold larger-scale sporting events with the state’s current restrictions for 50% capacity.
The Chargers’ Labor Day Tournament is typically held on all fields over two days and hosts 4,000 players. This year, however, organizers opted to limit the field to about 1,500 athletes, who played on every other field. The tournament was lengthened to four days.
Jim DiNoble, the director of operations for Chargers Soccer Club, said the organization’s goal was to get athletes playing competitively and in a safe manner.
“We’re just happy to be playing,” he said. “We’re minimizing the risk and getting kids back on the field.”
The Chargers took additional precautions, such as eliminating on-site vendors (T-shirt sales were online, for example) and assigning volunteers specifically to enforce social distancing guidelines. Some volunteers carried backpacks with cleaning supplies, masks and gloves.
Walter said every event at Premier must submit a COVID-19 action plan, and the facility has made modifications on campus, such as installing touchless sinks in the bathrooms and creating one-way paths for attendees.
“We’re all adjusting to that new normal,” he said. “This is a great opportunity for us to demonstrate it can be done safely.”
DiNoble said an estimated 60% of the teams participating were commuting to the tournament while the remaining 40% stayed at hotels. He said teams expressed some apprehension about staying at hotels but compensated by staying one night instead of two.
DiNoble noted nearly every team in this year’s tournament was from Florida, whereas in years’ past, the tournament has attracted out-of-state competitors as well.
Walter said that’s in keeping with what the CVB is seeing with overall tourism trends — the market for tourists within driving distance is strongest.
“That’s a good thing,” Walter said. “It gives an opportunity to showcase that event. The thing we look at is whether the event is driving business to our industry partners.”
DiNoble said the Chargers are planning to hold another tournament at Premier Sports Campus in the December/January time frame, as long as there are no spikes in COVID-19 cases.
Walter said there were nine events scheduled at Premier from August to December compared to 16 the same time last year. The CVB is allowing groups to be refunded or reschedule should COVID-19 increases or mandated restrictions require event cancellations.
Walter said groups are still cautious, but interest is steadily increasing, particularly for outdoor sports.
“There’s no doubt about it, and other sports commissioners say the same thing,” he said. “They’ve seen an uptick in baseball, softball and soccer.”
Other upcoming events at Premier include the Florida Extreme Cup on Sept. 26-27 and the Capelli Sport Cup soccer tournament in November. Each will bring at least 100 teams to the area.
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