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Stay-to-Play: How to Make it a Winning Model for All

21 Jul, 2016

By: Mike Guswiler

Stay-to-play. These three words conjure up strong feelings on either side of the debate about whether this type of tournament policy is a help or hindrance.

Whether you love it or hate it, stay-to-play as an event organizing tool is not going away. The practice of selecting one hotel, or a group of hotels, to be the official properties of a meeting, and of requiring athletes outside the area to stay there in order to participate, is becoming far more common.

The NASC Sport Tourism State of the Industry Report released in April 2016 noted that roughly 60 percent of member survey respondents required stay-to-play in 2015. While that represents a four percent decrease from 2014, it is only a slight dip, telling us that the majority of our industry uses this policy as a tool to facilitate lodging arrangements between event organizers and hoteliers for traveling athletes and their families.

It was mentioned earlier that the term, ‘stay-to-play’ conjures up strong feelings. However, a stay-to-play policy needn’t be a source of contention if managed correctly. In fact, it brings many benefits and advantages to all involved parties if done properly. Event managers generate revenue from room nights booked that help defray tournament costs and keep registration reasonable for participants. Athletes and their families enjoy the convenience of booking a hotel room that meets their needs at a competitive price by making one phone call or click through an online booking gateway.

Tournament directors can easily coordinate group activities and supporting events if athletes are staying in one place. Hoteliers receive the guaranteed business of group blocks of rooms and contracted blocks, which sports groups rarely agree to since most participants make arrangements on their own or through online travel agents without the means to identify or track that they are with the event in question. CVBs and commissions can better track economic impact from tournaments, and host cities receive an economic boost from visitors who spend money locally.

Clearly, everyone can benefit from a sound stay-to-play policy if the process is created and managed properly. But how do you make sure of that? Just follow some best practices, as offered by those in the industry who have done sports planning for years. Here are a few ways to ensure a smooth stay-to-play arrangement.

Bring a Strong History of Booking Patterns/Room Night Needs

As an event owner or manager, your first step to ensuring a successful outcome is showing a host community you’ll be a good partner. You have a responsibility to provide a history of strong hotel booking patterns from past tournaments, plus a precise awareness of hotel amenities and room night needs for your event. The more information you can provide, the clearer the hotel’s picture will be of your event and of its needs.

Hotels that are skittish of stay-to-play arrangements are usually those with bad previous experiences; they might have had a memory (or more than one) of a time where an event owner didn’t have a clear sense of the lodging needs and historical room night usage, and the hotel lost money by holding rooms that were eventually released too close to the event dates to re-sell. Keeping open the lines of communication with the hotel and having reasonable room release dates will help alleviate these worries.

A hotel is far more willing to set aside a block of rooms for a tournament – even at a group rate – if they know the tournament director has a good track record. And once you have built that trust from one tournament year, it will be far easier to return to the same hotel in subsequent years.

Contact Sports Commission/CVB to Engage in a Stay-to-Play Arrangement in the Host City

Your local sports commissions and CVBs are your strongest allies in setting up satisfactory stay-to-play arrangements. They are the “boots-on-the-ground” in event host cities and know their hotel assets better than anyone. Provide clear communication about what your athletes need, whether it’s walkability to the tournament venue, free onsite parking, Wi-Fi or included breakfast.

Once they understand your priorities, it will be faster and easier for the sports commission or CVB to inventory available hotels that meet your needs than it will be for you. Plus, they support this lodging model since it helps them realize the true economic impact of a sports tournament in town if they can in order to clearly measure lodging stays. When athletes book directly at hotels all over town, it is challenging to measure direct visitor spending from overnight stays.

Determine Negotiating Points

Once the local sports commission has identified a hotel that meets your requirements and date availability, what do you need to make this work? What does the hotelier need? What do the athletes need? Find out everyone’s top priorities and propose an arrangement that best addresses each party’s needs. And be prepared to bend on some points.

Some common sticking points that will need to be openly discussed and negotiated include room rate, rebate or commission requirements, comp rooms, additional amenities, cancellation policy and length of time to hold a block of rooms. And keep in mind you’ll have to find a middle ground on some items. If, for example, you are bringing a new tournament without a booking history to a city, the hotel will want a fair number of days (30 days minimum) to release unsold rooms. This means that as a tournament director, you will need to encourage participants to book early.

Establish Terms Clearly (and in Writing) Between All Parties

Once each party has shared its needs and you have identified a middle ground for a successful arrangement, draw up a written contract clearly spelling out the details. Consider including items like minimum night stay, deposit required, commission or rebate, room block release date, comp room ratio, etc. And this also means communicating the terms clearly to athletes so they know what they must do to comply with the stay-to-play arrangement (and what will happen if they book outside of the room block, since each time, there may be a few athletes who have not participated in a tournament previously, and need to have the rules explained to them.) Here, again, more information is always better.

Communicate Regularly

It goes without saying: communication is always the key to success, not just with stay-to-play, but with all aspects of sport event organizing. Once a policy is negotiated, created and agreed upon, the work doesn’t stop there. As the event organizer, you’ll need to stay in constant contact with the hotel, athletes and the CVB or sports commission partner to make sure the policy is being followed.

Check in regularly with hotels to make sure they are following their end of the agreement such as honoring group rates, providing comp rooms for staff and officials based on the agreed-upon ratio, and not accepting reservations for teams outside the block. The same goes for communicating with athletes to make sure they are following the policy.

A stay-to-play arrangement can and should be successful for all involved – it comes down to planning and collaboration. It starts with bringing forward a strong event with clear needs, working with your CVB or sports commission partner, determining each party’s needs and negotiating an arrangement that is mutually beneficial for all – and then carefully managing it through to the successful end. 

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