Gator foes stay in Ocala

Visiting teams invade hotel


The Tennessee Volunteers arrive at the Ocala Hilton in Ocala on Friday. The team will play the Florida Gators in Gainesville on Saturday.

Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Star-Banner
Published: Friday, September 20, 2013 at 7:45 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 20, 2013 at 7:45 p.m.

OCALA - When you think of destinations on America’s big-time college football map, which cities come to mind?

OK, one’s easy. It’s about 30 minutes up the road. How about others? Maybe you’re thinking Tuscaloosa, Ala., or South Bend, Ind., or Norman, Okla.

How about Ocala, Fla.?

If you think that’s a joke question, here’s something to consider each time you watch a Florida Gators game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville: It’s all but a certainty those guys running out of the visitors’ tunnel spent the night in Ocala, as did a chunk of their fans.

Case in point: The Tennessee Volunteers are playing at Florida this weekend and are staying at Hilton Ocala, as they have done for years.

Jeff Bailey, general manager of Hilton Ocala, said his hotel has a contract with Gator football opponents.

“Hilton has had relationships with SEC teams for years,” he said. “We do SEC football and we do it quite well. A lot of the larger schools have special needs and those needs can be hard to meet for some of the smaller hotel chains.”

According to Bailey, visiting college football teams typically book between 85 and 120 of the Ocala hotel’s 196 rooms on the Friday night before a Saturday game, with overflow going to other Marion County hotels.

“In Gainesville, the entire city will sell out of hotel rooms for a game weekend,” Bailey explained. “Also, if hotels up there have a two-night minimum for those weekends, some schools either can’t afford that or don’t want to pay it.”

Meanwhile, there is another key advantage to staying in Ocala for visiting football teams.

“They are able to focus on their football,” Bailey said. “Up in Gainesville, everything is orange and blue and they have a harder time keeping their focus.

“Also they’re not tied to that two-night minimum here.”

On the other hand, some of the larger teams, like Tennessee, South Carolina and Alabama, have been known to bring alumni groups for two-day stays, Bailey said. Also, some schools designate at least one away date per year as a “special trip” and bring spouses or family.

“A lot of time a location in Central Florida is chosen for that trip, whether it be because of all the golf courses in the area, or the attractions or atmosphere in the Swamp,” Bailey said.

John Webb, president of the Florida Sports Foundation, a division of Enterprise Florida, said Gator foes and their fans aren’t the only ones stopping by on their way to the game.

“A good 35 percent of boosters, alumni and fans of the home team come to the games from outside the region,” he said. “That’s a huge impact.”

Putting a precise dollar amount on that impact is tricky. Bailey wouldn’t disclose the Hilton’s sales related to Gator football games. Webb said his group, which helps Florida cities pursue major events like the Super Bowl or the NCAA Final Four in basketball, is conducting a study in hopes of pinpointing the economic effects of different sporting events in Florida, but isn’t due to complete it until year’s end.

Matt Grow, director of Ocala International Airport, said some visiting college football teams fly into the facility during a season — Tennessee and Vanderbilt are scheduled to do so in the current campaign — but termed the dollars-and-cents impact to the airport of handling the teams’ air traffic “negligible.”

Teams pay a landing fee for using the airport. Some choose to refuel or keep the plane at the facility overnight, while others don’t.

Team flights typically bring 100 to 150 passengers, according to Grow, who says his airport gets some of those flights because it can accommodate planes like the Boeing 737, 757 and Airbus A320.

“It takes a large team effort to manipulate that kind of operation,” Grow said. “They’ll have a Sheriff’s Office escort come out to take them into town and we assist them in getting lined up, but other than that, it’s another operation.

“The big benefit is to the community,” he said. “They stay in town, maybe have a big team meal somewhere. They spend their money here.”

On Friday afternoon, shortly before four buses delivered dozens of Vol players and staff in bright orange tracksuits to the front doors of the Hilton, a group of fans stood waiting. Among them were Sherry and Dexter Bowles of Jackson, Tenn., parents of Drae Bowles, a redshirt freshman wide receiver for the Vols.

“We pretty much travel to all the games,” Sherry Bowles said. “We follow our babies everywhere. We missed Oregon last week, but that was the only one.”

When asked what they do in the downtime on trips, Sherry Bowles said, “We shop. We eat. We do whatever until game time.”

Also in the waiting party was LaTonya Lewis-Becton of Akron, Ohio. Her son, LaTroy Lewis, is a redshirt freshman defensive end for Tennessee. Lewis-Becton said she’d already explored Ocala a bit.

“I’ve been to the mall and a shopping plaza,” she said. “I bought some clothes and shoes.”

According to Webb of the Florida Sports Foundation, having the sort of relationship Ocala does with visiting college football teams can put a “bordering county” like Marion “on the map” for visiting fans.

“People may not be aware of your thoroughbred industry and the horse farms,” Webb said. “They come in and see it and they think, ‘Hey, this would be a cool place to come back and check out.’ It helps expose your destination to a lot of visitors. And you’ve got a unique destination.”

Webb cited an example from Jacksonville hosting Super Bowl XXXIX in 2004.

“We had people who stayed in Amelia Island because they couldn’t get a room in Jacksonville,” he recalled. “They ended up thinking that was the coolest place and they turned around and visited Amelia Island again. It was a win-win for them.”

Meanwhile, Ocala businesses in the area of the Hilton were preparing for sightings of people wearing Tennessee orange. Alfonso Ruiz, manager of El Toreo near the Hilton, said the restaurant typically gets “an OK crowd” from visiting college football teams on top of the usual weekend rush.

“We’ll be waiting for them,” Ruiz said.

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