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Sports Boost Hotels, Restaurants During New Years Week

T. Ortega Gaines
Charlotte Observer

Take a college bowl game in uptown Charlotte, add a Carolina Panthers playoff game that seemed improbable just a month ago, and bring an NBA superstar to town.

Schedule it all during the week of New Year’s Eve.

The result: Sold-out hotels, fully booked restaurants and brisk sales of Panthers team hats and T-shirts, according to a half-dozen Charlotte hotel, restaurant and shop owners.

“It’s kind of great that it all fell when it did,” said Chris Conklin, manager of the Aria Tuscan Grill, which is less than a half-mile north of Time Warner Cable Arena. “We’re excited and anticipating a good buzz going around Charlotte this week.”

During what otherwise would be a slow week for sales, Conklin and other business owners are preparing for a boost as the city hosts three major sports events centered in uptown.

The Carolina Panthers’ win against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday put the team in the playoffs for the second year in a row, with a Saturday matchup against the Arizona Cardinals.

Tuesday night, Charlotte will host college football’s Belk Bowl, between Georgia and Louisville, at Bank of America Stadium.

On Friday, the Cleveland Cavaliers, which signed NBA superstar LeBron James last summer, will play the Charlotte Hornets at Time Warner Cable Arena.

And Wednesday is New Year’s Eve, which uptown hotel manager John Beatty says is always a boon to the city’s hospitality industry.

When the Panthers made the playoffs last year, “we saw a high demand for our hotel rooms,” said Beatty, general manager of The Dunhill Hotel and its restaurant, the Asbury, on North Tryon Street, about a mile from Bank of America Stadium. “Playoff games are big.”

The hotel rented out all 60 of its rooms that weekend, Beatty said. The Asbury, which serves Southern foods such as “maw maw’s cast iron biscuits” and chicken and waffles, was so packed that patrons were placed on a waiting list.

Beatty said he expects another sellout for the hotel this weekend.

“This week overall is going to be strong, with the Belk Bowl being on Tuesday and then New Year’s Eve, which is always a popular night,” he said.

The Sheraton and Le Méridien hotels on South McDowell Street, with 605 rooms between them, have almost reached full occupancy for Tuesday and Wednesday, said Brian Hutchins, who manages both hotels. Hutchins said he is hoping for a similar uptick later this week for the Panthers game.

The Omni Hotel, next to the EpiCentre, has rented out most of its 374 rooms for guests in town for the Belk Bowl and New Year’s Eve. It’s still unclear whether it will see a big influx later this week for the Panthers or Hornets, said Marcella Ceccacci, the hotel’s marketing and sales director.

“We always do extremely well on New Year’s and sell out,” she said. “As of right now, we haven’t seen any pickup (for) this weekend.

“The last week of December, historically for the hotel, has done very well because of the Belk Bowl.”

Mecklenburg County saw $15.6 million in revenue and collected more than $336,000 in taxes during the Belk Bowl last year, according to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. More than 45,000 attended the game, renting 9,953 hotel rooms and spending $8.24 million out of pocket.

Those figures are good news for Shawn Lawson, Panthers team store manager.

“We always sell Panthers stuff here in the store, even during the Belk Bowl,” he said. “We’ve seen a big increase in foot traffic, really, the whole month of December … all building up to the game on Saturday. It’s a four-game winning streak. It’s good for business.”

Lawson said he expects the momentum to continue this weekend, when he and employees will stock division-championship merchandise. They’ve already started taking orders for division-style memorabilia on their website, which touts championship hats and T-shirts.

Lee McShane, manager of Irish pub Connolly’s on Fifth, said he expects full staffing this week to accommodate the crowds. “This is a moneymaking time” for employees, he said. “They all go on vacation after.”

Conklin said he hopes Saturday’s game gives Aria Tuscan Grill a boost it normally doesn’t get on Panthers game day because it’s closed Sundays.

“We don’t get that Panthers business,” he said. “(Saturday is) going to be positive.”

Conklin’s reservation book was “getting some action” early in the week, with about 38 members of the University of Georgia’s band expected to eat at the restaurant Monday night, he said.

“It generally would have been a fairly slow week if it weren’t for all these things,” he said.

Conklin also expects a boost when the Hornets play Cleveland on Friday at nearby Time Warner Cable Arena: “LeBron always has a good following wherever he goes.”

Alex Myrick, owner of nearby Blue Restaurant & Bar, agreed: “We are expecting people to come in after the game and hang out.”

This week’s sports blitz also makes it a good time for employers trying to attract top-level talent. Jeremy Gnozzo, founder of Charlotte-based executive search firm Search Solution Group, said his recruiters have been taking calls from clients who want tickets to the Hornets game to woo prospective employees and show them the city.

“Charlotte, in general, is a great city to recruit people to,” said Ashley Goldberg, junior partner with Search Solution Group. “The cost of living, the weather, the sports teams; it’s all really a selling point.”