Super Bowl Shuffle

Henderson says communication problems will be solved long before the rush for Houston hotel rooms.
Monica Fuentes

Richard Honiball was just the kind of guy Houston had in mind when the city nailed down Super Bowl XXXVIII.

The Hoboken, New Jersey, man and about a dozen of his young executive friends haven't missed the NFL's premier event in recent years. Honiball, a 34-year-old Brooks Brothers worker in New York City, set up the group's hotel reservations ten months early for the Super Bowl in New Orleans in '02. He'd had no problem booking the group that early for this year's festivities in San Diego -- where they also splurged on golf and fishing outings.

Weeks before this year's Super Bowl, Honiball was already on the phone making arrangements for the '04 game in Houston. He had picked out pricey restaurants, two golf courses and limo transportation. But all of that depended on lining up suitable lodging for his travelers.

He called one fashionable hotel, then another -- and another. The message was the same everywhere in this area: hotel staffs told him that nothing was available. Some of them said the National Football League had claimed every room, not only in their hotel but throughout the entire city.

Check back in September, Honiball said he was told, when the NFL is supposed to release rooms they don't need. And maybe his New Jersey group can get their rooms then.

By then, Honiball pointed out, it will be too late for his group to make the necessary arrangements. And he figures that even if they get their rooms then, they'll be exploited by price gouging and profiteering.

"What I don't understand is why the city of Houston would risk losing the thousands of dollars that my group [and groups like us] will bring to the local economy."

Money, along with international prestige, is definitely the motivating force behind hosting the Super Bowl. It was a prime perk promised by the NFL when Bob McNair ponied up $700 million to the league for the Houston Texans franchise. Visitors are expected to spend $300 million for Super Bowl week, according to the Web site of the 2004 Houston Super Bowl Host Committee.

The area's lodging industry also expects to cash in to offset the lean period of the last couple of years. Hotels have suffered decreasing occupancy rates because of the fallout from Enron and friends, as well as a national crunch in business travel from the lagging economy.

Despite the high-stakes financial aspects of the Super Bowl, the lodging issues indicate that Houston hardly has its act together -- even though more than two years have elapsed since the NFL formally handed Houston the 2004 Super Bowl.

The NFL and its coterie of teams, media and corporate friends have their rooms reserved, but others like Honiball have to wait -- at least if they want to stay in one of the premium hotels. In bidding to become the host, all cities have to reserve at least 18,000 rooms for use by the NFL and its guests, according to the league's Jim Steeg. Hotels must sign a contract with the league that they will not release rooms until the league has finalized their reservations.

Houston bid 19,008 of its 48,000 rooms in the region that stretches from The Woodlands to Galveston, said Jordy Tollett, head of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

That leaves the majority of rooms open. But with the area's premier hotels earmarked for the NFL, folks like Honiball, who are used to staying in exclusive accommodations, may have to settle for such fare as Motel 6.

Houston has blocked a greater proportion of rooms than San Diego did in its turn as host city this year. It reserved 18,500 of its 52,000 rooms, said Reint Reinders, CEO and president of the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau. Some corporations backed out at the last minute, leaving hotels with empty rooms, Reinders said.

While the NFL will get the first-round draft pick for hotels, people like Honiball shouldn't worry -- there will be plenty of rooms for visitors, said Don Henderson, hospitality chairperson for the Houston host committee of the Super Bowl.

The committee and the Houston visitors bureau are within three months of starting a toll-free hot line to help visitors find rooms, said Henderson, the managing director of Houston's Hyatt Regency. However, it could be as late as September before the NFL-reserved rooms are freed for individual consumers, he said.

Some Houston officials said the freeze on hotel rooms until September is no different from those used by previous Super Bowl host cities. However, that conflicts with Honiball's experience. Ten months before the San Diego game, he'd secured four nights' accommodations for his group at San Diego's landmark Hotel Del Coronado.

And, at least for now, the Houston host committee, visitors bureau and hotels aren't reading from the same playbook.

In order to double-check Honiball's claims, the Houston Press called major hotels about booking two rooms for the Super Bowl. Reservations clerks responded in a variety of ways: The Omni, Warwick and Westin Galleria said there was no room at the inn -- the NFL had booked all of their rooms. Henderson's downtown Hyatt and the Crowne Plaza Downtown said they were booked up -- they didn't say by whom. The Days Inn Downtown/ Medical Center reported they weren't booking rooms for that week yet. Some hotels said they were keeping waiting lists. Others referred the Press to the visitors bureau.

At the convention and visitors bureau, an operator informed the Press that the NFL had gobbled up every hotel in the city. Then the operator suggested calling the host committee.

Henderson acknowledged that there is a lack of communication but said the committee and the visitors bureau are working hard to solve it.

"There is confusion right now because we are trying to tell everybody, 'Don't sell anything yet…we're all going to fill up, everybody's going to get taken care of,' but we do need some time," he said. "It's just that it doesn't look good right now, in this premature moment."

Ultimately, Henderson and Tollett said, asking hotels to block rooms and work through the upcoming reservation hot line will protect visitors from price gouging.

"I wish I could tell everyone that there are 48,000 hotel rooms in Houston -- don't go make a deal with someone," Tollett said. He recommended calling the visitors bureau, but conceded that the only message they'd get is "to hold on till September, and then we will find you accommodations at a reasonable rate."

That's not good enough for Honiball and his fellow travelers.

"You've got 16 people who want to go to Houston, and the rooms are being held for corporate sponsors who may or may not decide to go," he said.

He's located the resort where the group wants to play a couple of rounds of golf. Honiball has selected a limousine service and a charter boat company for a deep-sea fishing trip. The problem is that those vendors want deposits now, but his group is afraid to pay since they don't know if they'll wind up in Baytown or Brazoria.

"We found everything but [a hotel]," he said. "And it's the one thing that holds up reserving everything else."

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