Hotels & Lodging

Want to Make A Good Stay-to-Play Policy? Start Here

30 Jun, 2014

By: Carrie D. Bright, IOM, CAE

Certain topics are known as “hot buttons.” In other words, people either love ‘em or they hate ‘em but they’re sure to engender discussion – often heated discussion (hence the term, ‘hot’ button).

When it comes to sports event planning, there are few topics that are bigger hot buttons with participants than the issue of stay-to-play. For those unfamiliar with the topic (that’s probably a minority these days), stay-to-play means exactly what it sounds like: the sports event selects a host hotel (or hotels) for a sports event in an out-of-town destination. It is the responsibility of the event participants who live more than a certain distance from the tournament, and who are traveling in, to stay in those hotels, as a condition of their participation. As part of its negotiation with the sports planner, event owner or rights holder, the hotel will build a rebate into the room rates; that rebate helps the event offset other tournament expenses.

Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? By deciding upon a hotel and negotiating a rate in advance, you relieve participants from having the responsibility of:

  • Trying to find an acceptable venue near the competition facility

  • Trying to secure a favorable rate

  • Hoping there are other individuals from the same event/tournament/competition who are  staying in the same hotel (thereby providing company for kids and their parents)

So, with all the advantages that stay-to-play presents, why do people object to it? Often, because they are sure they can find a better rate themselves. Many like to use discount travel sites to book vacations and business travel. Others have bonus points at various hotel chains because they use specific credit cards for their purchases. Some just don’t like being told where they’re going to be staying.

Setting aside the fact that there are multiple holes in the logic of finding a facility by using a travel site and/or bonus points, there are many reasons a stay-to-play policy is advantageous to sports organizations and competition participants. However, it is essential to understand that there will always be people who object to a stay-to-play policy and will try to get around it. Your job as an event planner is to negotiate the best arrangement you can with your desired hotel(s) and craft a contract that is beneficial to both parties. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

Keep the Lines of Communication Open

This is perhaps the most essential ingredient in any stay-to-play policy. Constant and efficient communication can make a huge difference having your policy embraced by your participants. Always aim for transparency. Here’s how:

With Participants: Make sure everyone understands the new policy and knows why it is being implemented. If it’s not possible to have a face-to-face meeting with participants, do the next best thing: answer as many of their questions and respond to as many of their objections as you can. Make FAQs for your website, provide a written summary and make sure everything is spelled out. The CVB or sports commission you’ll be working with has experience with this and may be able to help you. The hotels may also be able to supply information.

You want everyone who will be traveling to the sports event – or who is potentially traveling to the sports event – to understand exactly what the policy is intended to do (ensure fair rates and a good location, with good benefits for everyone) and what it isn’t intended to do (take away participants’ freedom of choice, cause mark-ups and give cushy kickbacks to the planner – meaning, of course, you). Keep in mind that these latter points are the biggest – and most unfounded – fears of stay-to-play opponents.

With the Hotel(s): Assuming you’re not working with a tournament housing service or getting assistance from another party, such as a sports commission or CVB to help you with negotiations, you’ll want to go over the contract with the hotel representative(s). Make sure you schedule periodic phone conversations as well. Look at all points on the contract including room block for each night (if it will vary), penalties for not meeting that, and more. Chief among the important points to note: keeping the integrity of your rate intact. The hotel should not sell rates lower than your tournament/event rate during your dates.

Don’t Take Away the Element of Choice

Negotiating with several hotels has advantages, above and beyond the ability to have more rooms available. Those who are attending the sports event will be happy to know they will have choices in terms of accommodations. By working with multiple properties, from luxury hotels to economy properties to suite-style accommodations, you can maintain the ability of participants to find something they like and something within their budget. However, be sure to let participants know that they should not delay in booking, since certain facilities will fill up more quickly than others.

When Negotiating with the Hotel

In addition to outlining your room block and the types of rooms you want/need (doubles, double/doubles, etc.), make sure you build in a provision for comp rooms based on the numbers of room nights booked throughout the event. Comp rooms can be used for staff, tournament officials and others. In addition, if you want other concessions, such as:

  • Late check-outs on your last day of competition (if, for example, the competitors will need to return to their rooms and shower before heading to the airport);

  • Free breakfasts (if not automatically included with the room rate);

  • Shuttle service to/ from the competition site, or to/from the airport;

this will be the time to outline it. Make sure the contract protects you from cancellation penalties – if not, acquire cancellation insurance, so that you are protected in case of the unexpected, such as a weather event that would prohibit the event from being held.


Stay-to-play is an excellent policy, but it is only as effective as the person who monitors it. It is up to the event planner to audit the hotel rooming list, the tournament registration list and more, and to deal with the small percentage of people who will try to get around the policy. Good relationships with the hotel(s) will help you here. If you’re looking at the hotel rooming list and you see that someone has booked a room outside your block, even if they got a different rate, they should be added into your block and you should get credit for the room nights.

Along the same lines, the key to the success of of stay-to-play is enforceability. If you don’t expect to be able to enforce stay-to-play, don’t have it. It’s only a beneficial policy if all your participants are on board.

Yes, there are exceptions to the rule. If someone is within driving distance of the site, for example, they should be able to provide written proof of this; in turn, you can waive the stay-to-play requirement for them. However, ensure they are not taking advantage of any hotel amenities afforded to participants, such as food, shuttle service, etc.

As a side note, the fact that there are special benefits should be communicated to all those who are going to be attending the event. Let them know that all benefits are the result of staying in the official hotel. It may help participants understand the stay-to-play policy is on their side.

Stay-to-play enforcement needs to come from the top down. If someone higher up in the chain of command (or anywhere in it, for that matter) is willing to make an exception and allow a participant to bypass the policy, it’s a clear indicator of troubles to come. Word will get out about it, and your participants – the ones who followed the rules – will be resentful. Make sure everyone is on board with it.

When used properly, stay-to-play has benefits to organizers, participants and the hotel. Yes, there are growing pains when it is first implemented, but it is a sound business practice in sports event planning. 


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