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Rare sight on race week in Charlotte: Vacancy

For hotels near Lowe's Motor Speedway, Christmas usually comes in May. With two big NASCAR race weekends, innkeepers could charge high rates and require multiple-night stays.

This year, though, the combination of a recession that has curbed race crowds and a wave of new hotels has left some speedway-area hotels scrambling to fill rooms.

“It's definitely one of the weaker May race weeks I've seen,” said Garrett Jenio, manager of the Wingate Inn and Suburban Extended Stay hotel – each about a mile from the speedway – and a Cabarrus County Tourism Authority board member.

In past years, hotels that otherwise charged from $69 to $150 a night for a room would jump to at least $250 a night during race weekends. Race fans had to pay up or try their luck elsewhere in the region, where many other hotels also boosted rates during those weekends.

Thursday afternoon, however, you could find rooms near the speedway for $120 to $150 a night for this weekend, centered on Saturday's Sprint All-Star Race. For the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend, they were less than $200 a night – and as low as $100 a night for longer stays.

The lull in lodging is another sign of the overall motorsports-related malaise during the economic downturn.

Speedway owners have posted double-digit drops in admissions revenues and fan spending. The pullback by families and companies has forced tracks to roll out discounts and promotions, which have recaptured some fans but cut into revenues.

The dip in crowds means fewer people descending on Cabarrus County at a time when the county has a record-high number of hotel rooms.

Three years ago, the county had fewer than 1,700 rooms, said Judy Root, spokeswoman for the county's convention and visitors bureau. Now it's almost 2,500, up nearly 50 percent.

Most came from an Embassy Suites that opened in 2007 and the new Great Wolf Lodge that opened this year. Nearly 300 more rooms in three hotels are scheduled to open within the next year, Root said.

The visitors bureau regularly checks in with area hotels in the days leading up to race weekends, Root said. While several have sold out for both weekends, she said, most still had vacancies as of midweek – a departure from filling up weeks or months before races.

“The bookings are picking up,” Root said, “but we are definitely behind where we normally are at this time.”

Last-minute decisions

At the Comfort Suites near Bruton Smith Boulevard and Interstate 85, general manager Lynn McCormack on Thursday afternoon welcomed Norm and Beverly Benning, who live near Orlando, Fla., and came to watch their son, Norm Jr., race in the truck and Sprint Cup races this weekend. They planned to stay two nights and leave after Saturday's race.

Compared with past years in which it would sell out months in advance, the Comfort Suites on Thursday still had a few of its 84 rooms available for this weekend and next, McCormack said. Last week, she removed the hotel's normal minimum stay requirements: two nights for the All-Star race and three nights for the Coca-Cola 600.

“I got kind of nervous. I've been tracking this for weeks,” McCormack said, adding that guests “are waiting until the last minute to decide if they're even going to go to the race.”

Recent revenue figures from companies that own the venues for most NASCAR races paint a sobering picture for a sport that was blessed with big growth much of this decade.

Speedway Motorsports, which owns Lowe's Motor Speedway and six other tracks that host Sprint Cup races, last week reported a 13 percent dip in admissions revenue and 24 percent decline in event-related revenue – from sponsorships and luxury suite rentals to food and souvenir sales. International Speedway Corp., which owns 12 major tracks, posted a 15 percent drop in admissions revenue and 41 percent plunge in food, beverage and merchandise revenues.

Shorter stays allowed

Those moves come after the speedway worked with area tourism officials to line up more than 90 Charlotte-area hotels willing to reduce room rates and waive minimum-stay requirements.

That includes the Courtyard Charlotte University Research Park, about four miles from the speedway, where general manager Steve Kutay said bookings for the race weekend are down slightly, and that guests also are planning shorter visits.

“You're not getting that four-night or five-night pattern,” he said. “You're getting two nights.”

Another challenge is a drop in business travel, Kutay said, which often kept the hotel busy during the week and normally would offset a dip in race crowds. Add the trend of travelers waiting longer to book rooms, and Kutay said the Courtyard is still hoping for a few more guests to show up this weekend and reserve the few remaining rooms.

Most Concord hotels declined to commit to discounts last year, anticipating that their location would allow them to command the same rates and required stays. Then came the recession and glut of rooms, Jenio said.

“This year, we're just not able to do that,” he said, despite offering lower per-night rates for guests who stay three nights instead of two. “That's not even attracting folks.”

While most economists expect the recession to end by next spring, the addition of even more rooms could mean hotels have to wait longer for relief. The building boom that began a few years ago, Jenio said, “is the natural cycle for this business.”

“It's going to be overbuilt for a while,” he said. “It's going to take us some time to grow back into it.”