Same old story every year – hotels rip off NASCAR race fans

Room rates and minimum-night stays occupy the minds of NASCAR track executives these days almost as much as tickets and traffic.

A recent sign that makes the trend clear: Bristol Motor Speedway officials, working with tourism leaders, have persuaded six more hotels to lower room rates and drop the minimum stay to two nights from three for 2011. Track spokesman Kevin Triplett says the Tennessee track, which hosts the March 20 Sprint Cup race, had a total of 11 hotels participating, with more to be added.

To be sure, that leaves plenty of hotels not in the program, but it represents a major shift that any rate adjustments are being made for the Bristol races, where sellouts became routine for many years. The newfound cooperation on rates and minimum stays reflects yet another change brought on by the slumping economy in recent years.

Bristol offers an interesting example beyond its popularity as a track. Sixty-percent of fans camp for the races and there are just 7,000 hotel rooms in the Tri-Cities area of Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City. Chambers of commerce and tourism groups from those cities have all participated in the push to entice more fans to attend races, Triplett says.

Executives at the two major track operators — Bristol parent Speedway Motorsports Inc. and International Speedway Corp., which owns Daytona International Speedway, among others — realize that the biggest costs for fans attending races come from outside the track.

“You could be spending $300 a night at a hotel with a three-night minimum," says Marcus Smith, president at Speedway Motorsports and the company’s Charlotte track. “It really adds up fast."

Compared with premium tickets at Sprint Cup races selling for $100, hotel rates and gas prices are much bigger factors for fans considering going to a race, Smith says. NASCAR, of course, relies on more fans traveling from longer distances than most team sports.

Soon after Smith became track president in 2008, he negotiated an agreement with Charlotte-area hotels to keep fans coming to races. It’s been maintained since then. For the 2011 spring races in Charlotte, the speedway has secured commitments from 50 area hotels to waive minimum stays and reduce rates by 15 percent. Track officials plan to promote the latest hotel offer through e-mail blasts to ticket buyers and on the speedway's website.

Motivation for tracks can be seen in the heavy discounting and sinking attendance across NASCAR as the recession and high unemployment exacted a steep toll. At ISC, admissions revenue fell by 32 percent between 2008 and 2010, from $236 million to $160 million. It’s a similar story at SMI. Though the company hasn’t reported full-year results, Wells Fargo Securities projects 2010 admission revenue to be $138 million. If that holds, it would represent a decline of 27 percent from $188 million in 2008.

Which explains why speedways have gone the extra mile to negotiate with hotels and, in turn, make sure fans know about the offers. Track websites include links to hotels and many speedways use their customer email lists to send out alerts on hotel promotions around race weeks.

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