Photo: Henry Taylor
Jan Roe’s first football season as the general manager of the Country Inn & Suites has been a tough one. Autumn — usually one of the most profitable seasons for hotels, condos and many other businesses in Athens — hasn’t been as reliable as in previous years.
In the past, the formula has been simple: when Georgia plays at home, Roe’s hotel books rooms.
“I’ve never gone into a football season with rooms unsold for the big games. Last year for [the Georgia-Alabama game], we were sold out by March,” Roe said.
This year, as the season has progressed and the Bulldogs have lost more games, Roe said her guests have become much less enthusiastic about making the trip to Athens for a game day weekend. Before the weekend of the Georgia–Tennessee game, Roe’s 81-room hotel had 38 total cancellations. About a week before the Auburn game, she had already had 32 cancellations. As a result, standard room rates for some weekends have decreased by almost $150 a night.
“Whether you like Georgia or not, you need them to win, because people don’t want to come spend $600 or $700 for a weekend just on hotel rooms [when the team isn’t good],” she said
Roe’s isn’t alone in her dilemma though, as game days, the performance of the team and the fluctuating enthusiasm of fans adversely affect businesses throughout Athens.
A $5,000 touchdown
Frank Cortese, the owner of Little Italy, understands Roe’s frustration. Earlier this year, he experienced the economic effects of Georgia losing almost instantaneously.
“During the Tennessee weekend, when Georgia scored, the whole place was packed,” Cortese said. “Then, the minute Tennessee scored, the place emptied out. We were still busy, but if Georgia would’ve won, it would’ve been probably a record day.”
Cortese estimates that he would have made close to $5,000 more that day if Georgia had won against the Volunteers.
“When Georgia wins, the town wins, and I make more money,” Cortese said. “People go out and spend money like they don’t care. Everybody’s on cloud nine.”
Pedro De Paz, the general manager at Ted’s Most Best, says his restaurant is also subject to the mood swings that come with victory and defeat. Like Cortese, De Paz thinks Georgia losing is bad for business, specifically pointing out that patrons often seem less likely to tip servers when they’re upset after a Bulldogs loss.
“I guess that it really affects the whole ecosystem of the restaurant,” he said. “It affects everybody’s money based on how someone who has nothing to do with the restaurant does.”
De Paz often finds himself rooting for the team to win games — many times more as a manager than a fan.
“You can not care about football, but at the end of the day it does affect what you’re doing and where you’re working,” he said “You don’t want them to lose because you know that’s going to affect your job.”
For Devin Heath, the general manager of The Graduate Athens hotel, the Bulldogs’ winning percentage isn’t the only thing affects room reservations.
“We do find that the better Georgia does — and also the opponent we’re playing — factors into it,” he said.
Heath said “people were coming out of the woodworks” when Georgia and Alabama faced each other at Sanford Stadium in 2015, as the game combined still-high expectations for the Bulldogs’ season with a matchup against a powerhouse opponent in the Crimson Tide.
To cope with this year’s decline in reservations, Roe said she has had to change some of her weekend booking policies in order to attract enough guests to fill the hotel.
In addition to lowering her rates significantly, she has also removed the Country Inn & Suites’ two-night booking requirement for home games, allowing guests to reserve a room for just Friday or Saturday night as opposed to the entire weekend.
At the Georgia GameDay Center, which offers condominiums for rent and purchase during the fall, General Manager Jenny Spivey has also often eliminated the two-night requirement.
Despite taking some extra measures to fill rooms, Spivey said the GameDay Center typically has less trouble selling out compared to hotels, because when condo owners decide not to come to Athens for a game weekend she can simply rent their rooms out to other customers.
“If the season’s not going as well our rates will go down a little bit. But our owners will release their units, and that gives us more rooms to rent. We might be sold out one minute, but then a week later rooms open up,” she said.
When there’s less optimism about an upcoming season, Roe and Spivey both reach out to their regulars to make sure they’ll return the following year. Roe said this season she has already been giving guests the option to book rooms in advance for 2017.
At Little Italy, Cortese said he does whatever he can to cut labor costs during quieter home games. In years such as this, where Cortese said most game days have been similar to regular Saturdays for him traffic wise, he’ll do his best to prepare for any decrease in customers — such as by cutting his staff or ordering less food — although making these adjustments is not an exact science
“There’s really nothing you can do about it — it’s just the town. We really have no control over how Georgia does,” he said.
The high season
Even with this dependency on the team’s success and schedule, most local businesses see the benefits of Georgia football outweighing the drawbacks.
“At the end of the day Georgia fans are still great fans and still come out and support the team,” Heath said.
Heath also said that home games help his hotel throughout the entire season because anyone looking to plan special events at The Graduate during the fall can’t find openings during game days, putting other Saturdays in even higher demand. As a result, the hotel is usually near full capacity for all of autumn.
Hannah Smith, the director of marketing & communications at the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau, echoed Heath’s sentiments.
“We are busy all through the fall, not just for home football games,” Smith said. “Because anyone that wants to get married, anyone that has to hold a conference, are all competing for the same weekends when Georgia isn’t playing [at home].”
Roe has also typically been able to sell out a large number of her rooms throughout the fall, although she noted that it’s sometimes hard to plan for other events — such as weddings and parties — when football games have brought so many visitors in past years.
“On football weekends you’re banking on that football business — you don’t take anything else,” she said.
‘You just deal with it’
While many businesses are subject to the ups and downs of the team’s season, some local shops and restaurants, such as Chick Music, are affected negatively by game days in Athens — no matter how well the Bulldogs play.
Van Shepherd, the manager at Chick, said this year he decided to just shut down on Saturdays when Georgia has a home game, as it simply isn’t profitable for him to stay open.
“We literally don’t average enough [sales] on game days to justify having the doors open. It’s more of a Georgia holiday for us,” Shepherd said.
Shepherd has heard complaints from his customers about finding parking and navigating through the large crowds during home game days. He also acknowledged that his business — selling and repairing musical instruments — isn’t necessarily suited to football crowds.
Tim Kelly, one of the owners of The Rook & Pawn, also recognized that his business isn’t a huge draw during home games.
The Rook & Pawn, Kelly said, is more catered to a quainter, secluded atmosphere, as the cafe is known for its large collection of board games available to customers.
Even though he said he only sees about half as many customers during game days as he does on a normal Saturday, Kelly, unlike Shepherd, keeps his doors open when Georgia is playing because he wants to give his regulars the option to still come in.
“We’re fine to put up with it for six Saturdays out of the year. We just see so many families come through and people that are permanent residents in town. And we see them the other 359 days out of the year.” Kelly said.
Despite football’s negative effect on his business, Shepherd recognizes that locations such as his and Kelly’s are more exceptions than the norm, and that overall football benefits Athens as a whole. As a result, Shepherd is willing to be one of the few casualties to an otherwise helpful economic force.
“Being around as long as we have, you understand football is king in Athens. It’s almost the religion of Athens — and you can’t fight that. You just deal with it.”