Playing host to all 48 teams competing in the NCAA volleyball championships figures to provide one powerful spike in business for Omaha’s hotels.
Just how big is this 11-day COVID-19 volleyball “bubble” to Omaha?
When the NCAA decided to bring the entire Division I tournament to the city rather than just the Final Four, the demand for hotel lodgings for the teams and officials rocketed from 900 nights to 9,400.
Even excluding the family members and fans, the event is estimated to pack an $18 million economic punch for the city, said Deborah Ward of Visit Omaha, Omaha’s convention and visitors bureau. For a hospitality industry that’s endured a dismal pandemic year, it’s a huge win.
“This is the highest level of business we have seen in a long time,” said Steve Hilton, general manager of the Marriott Omaha Downtown at Capitol District, right across the street from the CHI Health Center Omaha. “It’s a step in the right direction for the recovery process and prepares us for bigger things in the future.”
The NCAA’s decision to bring the entire tournament to Omaha is a testament to the city’s proven ability to pull off major events like the College World Series and U.S. Olympic Swim Trials. Given the unprecedented nature of what’s being attempted, having those experienced partners is reassuring, said Kristin Fasbender, an Omaha native and NCAA official who is directing the tournament.
“(Omaha) can put on big events, and that definitely helps the comfort level of us trying something that we haven’t done before,” said Fasbender, the NCAA’s director of championships and alliances.
It also helps that the CHI Health Center features an interconnected arena and convention center — a rare combination among sports venues nationally — that gives the NCAA the ability to play the entire tournament under one roof.
No fewer than 13 volleyball courts are being set up inside the spacious facility, including five for competition and eight for practice.
The Omaha setup also features plenty of downtown hotels, most within easy walking distance of the arena. Not a bad way to get athletes and officials around during a pandemic.
“When we explored the options, we saw this was an opportunity to provide a great championship experience for our student-athletes during this really crazy and unique year,” Fasbender said.
The tournament comes to Omaha after a year in which the city lost more than $250 million worth of events to the pandemic, among them the CWS, the Swim Trials and the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders meeting.
For the region’s tourism business, it’s hoped the tournament’s economic jolt will mark the beginning of a months-long, sports-centered pandemic recovery.
“The NCAA volleyball bubble is a kickoff to a great round of business for this city,” said Robert Sabin, general manager of Hilton Omaha. “For the next three months, it really showcases the impact of the convention center and arena to the economic ecosystem downtown and for everyone in the city.”
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It looked like 2020 was going to be a year of memorable, big-ticket events in Omaha. But when the deadly COVID-19 pandemic came ashore in February and quickly spread across the country, every one of those headliners fell by the wayside.
First the NCAA regional men’s basketball games set for Omaha in March were canceled. Poof went the tournament’s $5 million in estimated economic impact.
Then Warren Buffett announced that May’s Berkshire meeting would be online only, sans the 40,000-plus shareholders. Another $21 million lost.
The Swim Trials were postponed to 2021, draining away $74 million worth of business.
Then COVID struck out the CWS. That was a $70 million hit.
Visit Omaha says in all, 134 meetings or events it had helped bring to the city were called off, amounting to an estimated $256 million in lost tourism revenue. And that doesn’t include the impact of numerous other concerts, shows, events and festivals, and even weddings and reunions, that also fell to the virus.
“It was pretty brutal,” Ward said.
In the end, Douglas County’s hotels, even after a strong January and February in 2020, saw revenues for the year fall more than 50%. The lost tourism contributed to a 16% drop in annual business for Omaha’s restaurants.
In Omaha and across the state, tens of thousands of hospitality workers were thrown off the job.
“It was awful,” the Hilton’s Sabin said. “It was affecting our team members’ livelihoods.”
The impact went beyond hotels and restaurants, deeply affecting the airport, transportation companies and local attractions.
Another blow came last summer when the NCAA decided to push most fall sports like volleyball off to the spring. Omaha had been set to host volleyball’s Final Four in December, an event that packed an estimated $8 million economic punch.
But that cancellation ultimately came with a bigger payoff for the city.
The NCAA began to study how to stage the fall and winter sports championships safely during a pandemic. Fasbender, a former University of Nebraska-Lincoln track athlete, said volleyball coaches and the sport’s oversight committee began discussing options.
The NCAA began to look at a bubble concept for many sports, putting on the entire event in a single city to limit travel and make it easier to put COVID protocols in place. That’s what the NCAA ultimately decided for its basketball championships, staging the men’s tournament in Indianapolis and the women’s in San Antonio.
With Omaha already scheduled to host the volleyball Final Four, the NCAA began to look at Omaha as the sport’s bubble site. The city had other things going for it, too.
The passion of volleyball fans in Nebraska is well-known. Omaha sold out the final four the three previous times it hosted, in 2006, 2008 and 2015. So fan interest would not be an issue.
And the setup in Omaha created some unique opportunities.
The reason Omaha has become the home to the Swim Trials for the last four Olympics can be traced to the decision by city planners in the late 1990s to build Omaha’s new arena and convention center as part of the same complex. In most cities, major arenas and convention centers are separate facilities.
For the trials, the joint location allows organizers to set up a competition pool in the arena, a practice and warm-up pool just yards away in the convention center, and still have lots of space for exhibitions and other gatherings related to the event.
The NCAA soon saw that the convention center-arena setup in Omaha would allow the entire volleyball tournament to be staged under one roof.
“The hotels being close, and the convention center being right there, really offered us the opportunity to keep our athletes as safe as possible,” Fasbender said.
The threat of COVID knocking teams out of the tournament remains real. In the 16-team NCAA men’s hockey tournament, both Michigan and Notre Dame had to forfeit because of COVID. And in the men’s basketball tournament, Virginia Commonwealth University’s team never took the floor.
In February, the NCAA announced that the entire volleyball tournament would be held here. That marked just the beginning of detailed planning. And the NCAA, the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority as the CHI Center operator, and the other partners had only weeks to pull it all off.
“There’s not a precedent for something like this,” said MECA spokesperson Kristyna Engdahl. “But given the experience of both the NCAA and Omaha and our ongoing working relationship with them, we feel really confident it’s going to be an awesome event.”
For early rounds, plans call for two competition courts in the convention center’s Hall A, two more in Hall B, and eight practice courts in Hall C.
The competition courts will be set up as “mini-stadiums,” Fasbender said, including partitions separating the courts and bleacher seating for the limited number of friends and family members who can attend the early matches.
The main competition court will be set up in the arena for the final three rounds, when the field has been cut to eight teams.
Once the event moves to the arena, fans from the general public will be able to attend, limited to 25% of the arena’s capacity. Some 4,000 spectators can attend each of two sessions for the quarterfinals, one semifinal session and the finals — a total attendance of 16,000.
Fasbender said the committee overseeing the event considered the use of multiple venues in Omaha and Nebraska. But she said going to additional venues would have required more travel, entering more buildings and interacting with more facility staff, increasing the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
“At the end of the day, the ability to bring everybody to one spot, have one central testing location, be able to hopefully provide a safe environment for our student-athletes to play in and compete in — and provide them a great experience — was the overriding factor,” Fasbender said.
In the end, assessing the event’s economic impact will depend largely on how many visitors the event lures to the city.
Each team is authorized a traveling party of 27 members, including athletes, coaches, training staff and other support personnel. For 48 teams, that comes to just under 1,300 people.
Fasbender also estimated there will be 200 tournament officials, including those involved in COVID-19 testing, bringing the total to about 1,500. Those numbers are largely what the visitors bureau’s $18 million economic impact estimate is based on.
But each participating team in the early round games is authorized tickets for 86 family members and friends. While some schools may not use all of their tickets, there’s a potential for 4,100 additional visitors. During the tournament’s middle rounds, surviving teams could get up to 200 tickets per game, which would further swell the potential visitor number.
Those added visitors will need lodging, too. The tournament is lodging official participants at seven downtown hotels: the Hilton, Marriott, Hilton Garden Inn, Courtyard Marriott, Doubletree, Hyatt Place and Homewood Suites. But others are hoping to lure spectators, too.
David Scott, director of sales at the Peregrine Omaha, said recent bookings at the new boutique hotel suggest that fans are coming. In fact, after the hotel saw its grand opening delayed by the pandemic last year, it decided to open last month four weeks earlier than planned in anticipation of volleyball bookings.
“I am seeing that demand, which is great,” he said. “I’m feeling optimistic.”
With the addition of all those spectators, it seems the tournament’s total economic impact could easily double the current $18 million estimate, and could potentially be much more than that.
The estimated impact for the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments — which both allowed limited numbers of fans — varied widely. San Antonio tourism put the economic bump from the 64-team women’s tournament at $27 million. But Indianapolis officials estimated a $100 million infusion from the 68-team men’s tournament.
No matter how many visitors are coming to Omaha, the city is getting ready.
At Arrow Stage Lines, workers last week were lining up the 36 buses that will be shuttling teams from the airport to their hotels and the convention center. While play doesn’t begin until Wednesday, the first 32 teams arrived Sunday to begin required COVID-19 testing.
With all 48 teams coming, Arrow has had to bring in buses from its operations in Kansas City and Denver to meet the demand.
“It’s great for the city, and it’s a huge deal for Arrow,” CEO Luke Busskohl said.
Inside the convention center Friday morning, MECA workers were putting down the practice courts, pulling the individual squared sections off pallets, laying them down and snapping them into place. In the adjoining halls, temporary bleachers had been wheeled in, some with stickers outlining allowable seating areas to keep spectators socially distanced.
Across the street at the Hilton, Sabin turned on a light that projected onto the lobby floor an image of a volleyball and the words “Bump, set, spike!” — paying homage to the incoming volleyball players and fans.
Volleyball is fast becoming one of Sabin’s favorite sports.
The convention center earlier this year hosted five huge youth volleyball tournaments, some of which relocated to the city because of COVID-19 restrictions elsewhere. The events brought in thousands of players, coaches, parents and other family members.
During one of the youth tournaments, some 78% of Douglas County motel rooms were filled — almost like normal times.
Three more big youth volleyball tournaments are coming soon. Then after that will come in quick succession the Swim Trials, the CWS and the U.S. Senior Open.
It’s enough to make tourism officials in Omaha hopeful that the industry has finally turned the corner after a long pandemic year. And it all starts this week when the volleyballs in Omaha start flying.
“This is certainly a nice shot in the arm for Omaha’s economy — with no negative side effects,” Ward quipped. “It’s just the beginning of the big event coming back to the city.”