Hotel demand, revenue slips for Charlotte's most lucrative annual tourism event


Maybe fans of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament are ready to go someplace other than Charlotte. The city’s top tourism executive mentioned that possibility on Thursday afternoon while discussing initial, partial results for area hotels during the tournament compiled by industry tracker STR.

Those figures show double-digit declines in hotel revenue for the busiest days of tournament week, Wednesday through Saturday. Sales at uptown hotels declined 12.2%; countywide, the drop from 2018 totaled 15.1%.

Demand for rooms and average rates also declined in uptown and across Mecklenburg County. The tournament started Feb. 25 and ended March 2. 

Charlotte has hosted the CIAA men’s and women’s tournaments, played the same week in the same city, since 2006. In January, the conference disclosed plans to relocate the tournament to Baltimore for three years beginning in 2021.

Tom Murray, CEO of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, said that while the CIAA “still had a huge impact,” ticket sales and hotel bookings have trended downward in recent years. He added that the slip “is not dramatic” but has been pretty consistent.

And he said that fans’ interest in a rotation of sites — similar to what the CIAA did for much of its history before coming to Charlotte — may have influenced member schools’ vote to go to Baltimore. Charlotte’s final run as tournament host, at least for now, is in 2020.

For the 2018 tournament, hotel room bookings increased 8.4% uptown and 8.6% throughout Mecklenburg compared with the previous year, according to STR. Even so, direct spending on hotel rooms, restaurant meals and other expenses, as measured by the visitors authority, declined in 2016 and 2017 and could do so again this year. The visitors authority is conducting a fan survey and study of visitors spending from the 2019 CIAA Tournament that will be released later this year.

In a statement prepared for CBJ, CIAA Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams said of the decline in hotel demand and revenue, “The CIAA Men’s and Women’s Tournament was a success this year and attendance to both the games and community events remained consistent with 2018 numbers. We haven’t yet completed our surveys regarding travel and hotel stay, so any information I provide is speculative. ... The good news is that our CIAA fans were here and the city as a whole has benefited from three entertainment-based basketball events this year.”

The commissioner also noted that the NBA All-Star Game, held in Charlotte in mid-February, may have affected the CIAA’s numbers this year.

McWilliams has said for years that hotel rates in and around uptown are too expensive. One of the most important selling points for choosing Baltimore as the future home of the CIAA was the city’s commitment to provide hotels at an average rate of less than $200 per room, well below Charlotte’s prices most years.

The number of hotels continues to grow in uptown and Mecklenburg. There are 5,601 rooms uptown and 27,312 in the county, compared with 5,300 and 26,500 a year ago.

Murray pointed out that, including the most recent decline, prices have gone down three consecutive years. The problem is those lower rates resulted from less demand, meaning hotels suffered a double-whammy. The visitors authority said it did not have all of the figures for actual rates and rooms occupied but plans to disclose those, when available, in the near future.

“Talking with the hotels, attendance was a little lighter than previous years,” Charlotte Area Hotel Association executive director Vince Chelena said. “But it was still a great tournament and there were still a lot of people here.”

Chelena added that the numbers could be skewed from 2018 because Rev. Billy Graham’s funeral in Charlotte occurred during CIAA Tournament week.

There are 13 historically black colleges and universities in the CIAA, including Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte. A majority of the schools are located in the Carolinas.

For the past three years, the tournament has been split between Bojangles’ Coliseum and the Spectrum Center uptown. Capacity at the uptown arena was reduced by nearly half — to 11,000 seats — in 2018 with price freezes and more general admission seating to boost ticket sales. 

The CIAA is as much a party scene and reunion hub as it is a basketball tournament. Those traits have helped make the tournament Charlotte’s most lucrative recurring tourism event.

McWilliams said during the 2019 tournament that, wherever the CIAA is, the league needs help from its host city to encourage fans who come to town to buy and use their tickets.

Last year, the CIAA said 131,000 visitors came to Charlotte for the tournament, but cumulative attendance at the games was 73,343. The latter figure represented a 5.8% gain over 2017. Visitor and game attendance figures have not been released by the CIAA for 2019.

Murray and Chelena said the initial figures would not discourage the city from trying to bring back the tournament. Mohammad Jenatian of the Greater Charlotte Hospitality & Tourism Alliance recently told CBJhis goal is to have it in Charlotte from 2024 through 2030. 

James Mitchell, a City Council Democrat who leads the economic development committee, sharply criticized the city’s most recent CIAA bid and has called for greater oversight of future bids. The visitors authority assembled and submitted the bid last year with assistance from local government.

Direct spending fluctuated between $27 million and $32.2 million between 2015 and 2018, with larger spinoff totals of $47.4 million to $57.4 million during that period. Economists’ opinions vary widely on the benefits of sporting events and conventions, something to keep in mind when industry-commissioned figures are mentioned.

Conference and Charlotte organizers have collaborated in recent years to tighten permitting rules in an effort to reduce violence at unsanctioned CIAA events. Between 2014 and 2017, several widely reported shootings, stabbings and other incidents at CIAA-themed concerts and parties caused safety concerns. Later this year, a Memphis, Tennessee rapper who is accused of participating in a shooting incident that included 100 bullets fired near the arena on the night of the 2017 CIAA championship game will go to trial, The Charlotte Observer reported.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, in its summary of the CIAA tournament, said there were no arrests made at any conference-sanctioned events this year. At unsanctioned CIAA events, 20 people were arrested and 10 guns were seized. A shooting occurred at 1:15 a.m. on March 3, hours after the championship game ended, at an uptown hotel near the arena. Two people, including the suspect, were shot but survived. The police said the “male suspect ... was not a guest at the hotel.” 

CMPD Lt. Brad Koch said that because the shooting “stemmed from a disagreement between individuals that were in a hotel room, it is not considered CIAA-related.”