Most of the hotel rooms in downtown Indianapolis will likely be booked by the NCAA as part of the organization’s plan to stage the entire Division I men’s basketball tournament in the city.
Five hotels accounting for more than 2,800 rooms—the JW Marriott, the Marriott Downtown, the Westin, the Hyatt Regency and Le Meridien—have already been blocked out by the Indianapolis-based NCAA for use by the 68 teams that will participate in the tournament, which is set to tip off in mid-March and run through the first weekend in April.
The hotels, classified as Tier I by the organization, account for about 37% of the rooms in the downtown market. At least 2,500 of those rooms will be part of the heavily controlled environment for student athletes, coaches and support personnel. Each of the hotels is connected to the Indiana Convention Center (where practices will be held) as well as Lucas Oil Stadium.
Thousands more rooms will be reserved for what the NCAA considers Tier II participants, including family members of the teams, event staff, and broadcast teams and media, according to an industry source..
The source, who is aware of the NCAA’s plans, told IBJ that nearly all of downtown’s nearly 7,600 hotel rooms could be used for the event, as well as additional hotels in other parts of the city.
“Active discussions and negotiations are underway to modify existing hotel contracts, put into place as part of the initial NCAA Men’s Final Four block,” the source said. “It could escalate to 5,000 [additional rooms], maybe 7,500 … maybe 10,000—it really depends.”
Visit Indy, the city’s tourism agency, said Thursday morning it is continuing to work with the NCAA to determine how many rooms are needed for the tournament.
“In working with the NCAA on a daily basis, we feel confident a second solid block of hotels will be contracted to host visitors to the city,” said Chris Gahl of Visit Indy. “As we get closer to tipoff, the exact number of hotels needed to right-size the event will be fine-tuned and will be officially set.”
While contracts have already been signed by each of the Tier I hotels, the finer details of those deals have not been finalized.
Phil Ray, general manager of the JW, said he expects details on room cleaning, meals, and meeting space to be discussed during a series of meetings with the NCAA over the next several weeks.
“There’s just a host of questions to figure out, and operationally, how we can do it,” he said. “My guess is, we’ll have multiple meetings to be able to work out the plans. But I’m not overly worried that it’s going to be too difficult—there’ll be a lot of collaboration between NCAA and the hotels to be able to make it logistically all work.”
Ray said he expects to pick up staffing levels ahead of the tournament. The hotel laid off most of its staff at the start of the pandemic, but has intermittently picked up staffing since July, now employing 150 of its typical 500-person crew
The hotels will also be responsible for preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner for each team. At the JW Marriott, that’s expected to be about 1,500 servings for every meal, as the hotel is expected to host about 26 teams. The Indianapolis Marriott Downtown is expected to host 16 teams, but it’s not clear how many the remaining three hotels will host.
The number of teams that remain at each hotel depends on which advance to later rounds. Teams that advance in the win-or-go-home tournament are likely to remain in their same room block throughout the three-week event until they’re knocked out.
As the tournament advances, however, the agreements between the hotels and the NCAA bar the properties from opening to other guests—a bid to ensure limited contact between the teams and the general public, which could pose a greater risk of transmitting the virus.
The NCAA is renting every single room in each of the five hotels for the duration of the tournament, IBJ’s source said.
Renting massive room blocks for big events isn’t unusual. Often, groups get special, negotiated, room rates when they plan big events. Such was the case with the Super Bowl, as well as major conventions in the city over the past several years. However, it’s rare when entire hotels are rented in the way the NCAA is planning—and it’s even more unusual given the desire to create a “bubble” for participants.
Patrick Tamm, president of the Indiana Restaurant & Lodging Association, said the room bookings are “significant” for the city’s strained hospitality industry, which has been slowly on the mend for several months.
“It’s significant as we tell the world—show the world—that Indianapolis is open for business,” he said. “It shows to any major sports organizer in the world that Indianapolis in any circumstance or condition can pull off the greatest events, in the toughest situations, and do it the right way.”
Both Ray and Tamm said additional benefit could come if the NCAA is able to welcome fans at games, with potentially thousands more hotel rooms occupied by out-of-town visitors.
A source told IBJ that the NCAA is generally focused on securing permission for fans at the Final Four and national title game.
The Marion County Public Health Department said Wednesday that “no final decision” has yet been made about whether general admission for fans will be possible during the tournament.