This weekend is shaping up to be one of Fort Worth’s busiest ever for visitors — and not just because the NCAA’s Final Four will take place in Arlington.
In addition to the men’s college basketball championship being held at AT&T Stadium, the city will play host to its annual spring NASCAR weekend as well as a large convention.
Area hoteliers and event leaders have their game faces on.
“We’re anticipating a great weekend,” said Tracy Gilmour, director of marketing for Sundance Square. “It’s going to be crazy down here.”
Gilmour, of course, is referring to the crowds expected in the new Sundance Square Plaza, where ESPN will set up to broadcast programs during the college basketball tournament. Three years ago, crowds swelled downtown when ESPN had broadcast booths in Sundance Square for their coverage of the Super Bowl played at what was then called Cowboys Stadium.
Gilmour said she expects nothing less this time around. More than 80,000 fans are expected to attend the basketball games, with the semifinals being played on Saturday and the championship game on Monday night.
Meanwhile, Texas Motor Speedway hopes that as many as 150,000 will travel to far north Fort Worth for the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup & Nationwide Series O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 and Duck Commander 500. The Nationwide Series race will be held Friday, instead of Saturday, with the Duck Commander 500 on Sunday. Qualifying heats for the Sunday race will be held Saturday.
Eddie Gossage, the speedway’s president, said he asked NASCAR to change the weekend of the race to avoid competition with the Final Four, but NASCAR said no. That’s when local track officials changed the race days. But it will work out well, he said, because the NCAA and NASCAR share some of the same sponsors.
“There’s an upside for us,” Gossage said. “High-ranking CEOs from major corporations will be here Sunday. In any market, you want to avoid any competition. So much of the spotlight will be on the Final Four.”
And on top of the sporting events, WorldVentures, a Plano-based company that markets travel-related products, is bringing its international convention to the Fort Worth Convention Center Friday through Sunday. The convention required about 1,200 hotel rooms, which translates to a couple of thousand attendees.
Bob Jameson, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the three events will keep the city hopping, but the hotels and restaurants are prepared. What few hotel rooms remain available are quickly being reserved by fans of the Final Four teams booking at the last minute, he said.
Although most NCAA-sanctioned events will be held in downtown Dallas and the teams will stay at hotels there, Jameson said he’s fine with that. It was doubtful Fort Worth could have handled those rooms with everything else going on, he said, and he’s more thrilled about the exposure Fort Worth will get through the ESPN broadcasts.
The NCAA “ultimately made a strategic decision for themselves,” Jameson said. “The number of rooms they need fits very comfortably in Dallas. You either choose to split it up for the sake of splitting it up or you keep it localized. They made a decision to keep it all localized. We could not have accommodated all the rooms they needed.”
ESPN’s four days of broadcasts from Sundance Plaza will attract big crowds for nearby restaurants and other businesses, he said. “People are going to come and want to be a part of that. Fort Worth has really got the best experience to be offered.”
ESPN will set up their equipment Wednesday and Thursday and start broadcasting from Sundance Square Plaza at 8 a.m. Friday, Gilmour said. Sundance will run a broadcast schedule on its website, www.SundanceSquare.com.
The ESPN stage will be located smack in the middle of the plaza, with the historic Tarrant County Courthouse in the background. The plaza’s jetted fountains will be shut down for ESPN to set up a demonstration half basketball court, she said.
“People will come see their favorite on-air talent and the celebrities they’re interviewing,” Gilmour said.
But just as fast as ESPN sets up, they will have to take down. Crews will begin setting up on Tuesday for the Main Street Arts Festival that begins next Thursday. Gilmour said about 70 artists booths will be set up in the plaza.
ESPN has a block of rooms at the Renaissance Worthington Hotel in downtown Fort Worth and the NCAA has a block of rooms at the Hilton Hotel in Arlington for production crews. The NCAA also has the Arlington Convention Center booked through Tuesday for staging and events, though none of those will be open to the public.
Ronnie Price, president and CEO of Arlington Convention & Visitors Bureau, said Arlington hotels and restaurants are ready as well.
“The hotels are doing really well,” Price said. “They all look very healthy for this week, which is wonderful. You can’t help but be excited. This is regarded as one of the top sports events a city can host. We are extremely excited to be chosen to be on the world stage.”
As of late last week, some hotels in Tarrant County reported still having some rooms available, said Julie Faver-Dylla, executive director of the Hotel Association of Tarrant County. The hotel booking option on the Fort Worth Convention & Visitors Bureau website Monday was showing about 20 hotels across Tarrant County each with a few rooms available.
“A lot of them are busy, but they’re excited to have the business,” she said. “There are hotels that still had rooms at a competitive rate.”
John Klukan, general manager of the 504-room Renaissance Worthington Hotel and chairman of the Hotel Association of North Texas, said demand has been stronger than expected across the area, adding that his hotel has been booked since early February.
“We have repeat groups from the Super Bowl,” Klukan said. “They had such a good time, they didn’t even look at other places in the Metroplex.”
Nancy Sorrells, general manager of the 311-room Sheraton Hotel near the stadium in Arlington, said she had a few dozen rooms left late last week, but expected those to be booked by fans traveling for the final games. As of Monday, the hotel still has some rooms available for Sunday and Monday, she said.
“We sell out frequently,” she said. “We’re definitely ready.”
Jed Wagonknecht, general manager of the 203-room Courtyard by Marriott Downtown/Blackstone, said his hotel is hosting one the NASCAR teams.
“It is just crazy,” he said, adding, “We’re ready to roll.”