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Big East Packs Hotels As Restaurants Prepare For Crowds


March 02, 2012

Hundreds of fans in Syracuse University orange attire and others in Providence College gear walked over a red carpet and through an archway of blue, red and white balloons Friday to the basketball court at the XL Center in Downtown Hartford.

The Syracuse-Providence game midday Friday started the Big East tournament, the nation's largest Division I conference in women's college basketball, which has come to the XL Center each year since 2004.

The event continues through Tuesday as a projected 40,000 people — fans, players, cheerleaders and bands — flock to the city. The first big crowd of the weekend is not expected until Sunday night, when the University of Connecticut women walk onto the court to play for the first time in the tournament.

The UConn women are scheduled to play at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, rather than 2 p.m. as they have in the past. That changes the way restaurants gear up for the event, and they're not entirely sure how it will affect business.

Although UConn women aren't ranked as well as they have been in previous years, the growing strength of other teams within a day's drive of Hartford might attract more fans to the city rooting for Syracuse, Rutgers, Providence or St. John's.

"You get a lot more fan base in the teams that are closer," said Bob Colangelo, owner of Max Bibo's Delicatessen & Catering on Main Street.

Max Bibo's catered an event for Big East staff Thursday and had reservations for two teams Friday, Colangelo said.

"It's one of the biggest events," Colangelo said of the tournament..

Hartford is a familiar host to the basketball tournament.

"I think the fact that we've had it here for nine years speaks for itself," said Jay DuMond, owner of City Steam Brewery Café and Restaurant on Main Street.

City Steam started to bustle late Thursday afternoon as the staff prepared to host 350 people for the first-ever City Steam/Connecticut Beer Trail Winter Beer Festival. They were also getting ready for the first wave of basketball fans, including a group from Seton Hall that reserved tables upstairs.

"I think it's growing," DuMond said of Big East attendance.

The owner and executive chef at Dish on Main Street, Bill Carbone, agrees.

"Just watch the hordes of people come up Pratt Street," Carbone said. "It's definitely growing."

Restaurateurs and hoteliers say the event is better attended in recent years than when it first came to Hartford. The 16-team basketball tournament is worth an estimated $2 million to the region's economy, according to the Greater Hartford Convention & Visitors Bureau. That's double the estimate from six years ago.

It's difficult to quantify exactly if, or how, attendance has changed since the first year Hartford hosted the Big East. The venue, XL Center, does not disclose ticket sales figures. Complete and accurate tallies of people staying in hotels in the area aren't available. Anecdotally, though, people who run businesses say it is either growing or consistent as an attraction during a slow time of year.

The event will likely have about 70,000 attendees, said Tim Kemp, XL Center senior marketing manager. It's not clear how many of those will be the same people attending more than one game.

Both the Hilton Hartford on Trumbull Street and the Hartford Marriott Downtown on Columbus Boulevard are booked solid.

"It's a great weekend — we're sold out all the way starting from Friday through next Tuesday," said Brien Fox, vice president of sales and marketing of the Waterford Group, which owns both hotels and the Residence Inn Hartford Downtown, which also is either booked or nearly booked.

The event fills hotel rooms in Rocky Hill, East Hartford and Manchester too. The XL Center has worked with the Big East staff to send to all 16 participating colleges promotional materials containing information about restaurants and attractions. Email blasts have been sent to more than 250,000 alumni, students and fans, according to the convention and visitors bureau.

Hartford itself has changed since the event first came here.

"The downtown of 10 years ago is significantly different than the downtown of today," said Michael Zaleski, executive director of the Hartford Business Improvement District. "You've got a lot more restaurants and attractions. Just within the last five or six years, the Connecticut Science Center has opened, the convention center ... for somebody who has been attending the tournament for the last however many years is going to recognize that the city and the downtown have come along way."

Zaleski says he thinks the fans are better acquainted with the city, too.

"Whereas five years ago, or six years ago, they may have been looking for restaurant recommendations, you've got people who are used to coming to Hartford now, and know that Trumbull Kitchen is their favorite restaurant, or that Black-eyed Sally's has a killer pulled-pork sandwich. ...The challenge of the tournament is: Your team could lose in the first day and you're out."

At the end of the tournament each year, the organizers and hosts review how it went, said Michael Van Parys, president of the Greater Hartford Convention & Visitors Bureau. They make improvements — such as the online marketing and email blasts, and establishing the website, http://www.bigeast.org/wbb — to offer fans a better experience.

"I think we get better every year," he said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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