What they say about stay-to-play
Within the sports tourism world, you will find a no more debated topic than stay-to-play, a long-standing tactic in which event operators and host cities work with hotel booking agencies to secure room blocks at negotiated rates. In exchange for delivering an agreed upon number of guests, the booking agency receives a commission — typically around 10 percent — which it then shares with the event owner or sports commission.
When it enters a stay-to-play tournament, a team must book rooms in those blocks at the agreed upon rate.
While popular with hotel operators, stay-to-play is the scourge of travel sports parents, who often are certain they could find a better price on Expedia or Travelocity.
Here’s what some in and around sports tourism say about stay-to-play:
Janis Schmees Burke
Harris County-Houston Sports Authority
“To be honest, we don’t have a lot of stay-to-play events. One year we did the AAU Junior Olympics, and we said, ‘All right. We’ll try to do this stay-to-play.’ We didn’t want to force people out of the Junior Olympics because they couldn’t afford to stay in a certain hotel, so we said, ‘Let’s do a stay-to-play unless they fill out an exemption form.’ With 50,000 people descending on our city, it became too much work to handle all these exemption forms. What we found after all that exercise was that even though we’re this big city where people can go around the box and they can stay 30 minutes away from the venue, they’d rather not do that if we can get the very best rates at the hotels that are closest to the venues. It was just a matter of marketing that very distinctly.
“So we said: ‘We’re Houston. We have traffic. We want to make sure you get your kids to their events. So here are the hotels we’re suggesting because we know the traffic patterns.’ We know which hotels will get them in and out. We packaged it and marketed it the right way and got the hotels to realize that if we want this to come every four or five years, we have to keep our rates reasonable, because it’s better for us all to keep getting the event. We did just as well and didn’t have all that paperwork to deal with exemptions.
“People get angry if they feel like they’re being dictated to. Or if they feel like they’re getting upcharged $10 or $15 to help pay for the event. It can kind of backfire. But we also don’t want teams to have to stay an hour away. So it really comes down to working with your hotels on the rates and then working hard as the host to get people to choose those hotels because they realize it’s going to be better for them.
“Stay-to-play is easier. But if you put the work in you can get the same result and yet people don’t feel forced.”
Greater Columbus Sports Commission
“The best combination is when you have a great partnership between the third-party housing, the destination and the actual events rights holder. You’re all three in it for all the right reasons and you’re making it the best outcome for the participants and their families. I’ve seen some excellent models of that. And then I’ve seen the ones that haven’t worked, where maybe it’s just the price points that are important. To me, if you can get all three of those things rowing in the same direction, that’s a win for everyone.
“What the athletes and their families may not recognize is the investment that the event operator has to make in paying for the facility and paying for the officials and paying for marketing. And then, a city like us, we want to be able to count you. I want to know how many rooms I’m filling. Stay-to-play helps us do that.”
Director of sports market sales
Visit Salt Lake
“About half [of our tournaments] use it. I can tell you our hotels love it. And we do essentially work for the hotels. … There are pros and cons when you consider it from the athlete and family side. It’s passing on the cost to the parents rather than raising the registration rates. I think if it’s done right, it can work well. But it can be abused easily.
“The key is turning it into more of a positive: Stay to save. Too many times, families think, ‘Oh great, now we have to stay in these hotels and they’re always more expensive.’ You have to make it a positive experience for them. But we have over 17,000 rooms in Salt Lake County and dozens upon dozens of hotel options. If I don’t have a stay-to-play then my hotels are potentially going to lose out. And I’ve seen it happen. They can get burned if there’s not a way to channel those families into the right hotels.
“Stay-to-play also is one way the rights holder can get revenue back to offset the rental cost. We can’t waive those, so that can be important to a tournament operator.”
Knoxville Sports Commission
“I don’t do a lot of it. I think it kind of scares some people away. We’ve got some groups in Knoxville that do stay-to-play. But we don’t do much of it. We’ve come up with a concept we call ‘Stay to Win.’ We encourage people to stay in the hotel blocks. And we might give them something. Do ‘Stay to Win,’ and then we’ll draw one name and give them a gift card. Or give them a free entry into the tournament. That’s something we try to push.
“I’m never going to tell a team you can’t play in my tournament if you don’t stay at our hotel. I want people in the hotel rooms, regardless of how we get them there. We’re lucky that we have good hotel partners all over the area that are very good about giving us a good rate. And we also [operate] our own housing system. So we can do a ‘Stay to Win’ or [Visit Knoxville] housing, and they’ll give us a rate that’s hard to beat online. Our hotels do a good job of helping our system by giving us good rates to put in there.”
National Association of Sports Commissions
“We had seen a decline [in stay-to-play]. But now the latest numbers show there’s been a little tick up. It has seemed to me to be a held-hostage kind of marketing strategy. It really comes down to the consumer having the decision to make on how long they want to stay in the market and what they want to get out of the marketplace. Those enterprising marketplaces who can bundle activities that create enough interest are the ones who are going to win that game. Give them a reason to want to stay. But forcing it based on event registration, eventually people will revolt against it.
“The hotels all want it. But it comes down to the carrot versus the stick. I get that it’s appealing to know that if a team is entering a tournament, they can’t say no to your hotels. But I don’t know how appealing it is when you factor in that you’ve made your guests angry. And it can make them angry.”