UNIVERSITY PARK -- When the 1,600 athletes finish their final rowing heat at the U.S. Rowing Masters National Championships this weekend, they will need food and rest, creating a tremendous opportunity for the local economy.
The Masters, with an age range of 21 through 84, will act as Nathan Benderson Park's first true national regatta, all while international rowing officials will give one final look at the venue before deciding whether to award Sarasota the 2017 World Rowing Championship.
Local businesses say the rowers are great for sales, spending, eating and drinking more to create a nice mid-summer boom.
The Masters, held Thursday through Sunday, are anticipated to have a range of $800,000 to $1.5 million in economic impact to the area, depending how long and where the rowers stay, said Nicole Rissler, director of sports at the Sarasota County Sports Commission.
"We anticipate they may end up being here a little longer and may get family vacation in," she said.
Food vendors, live music and beer trucks are part of the festival atmosphere organizers are trying to create to attract locals to witness the sport and support the venue in its quest for international glory, said Paul Blackketter, president of Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates, the organization in charge of organized rowing in Sarasota-Manatee, and pushing for the 2017 World Championship.
"We want it to be very special and say good things to tout our brand and Sarasota throughout the event," Blackketter said about the championships. "We'll have food trucks, selling beer throughout the event [except on Sunday], live music Friday night. We'll have field drums and a big Jumbotron, and right on the lake we'll have corn hole games for people to just come out and feel it and be a part of it."
Blacketter stressed that this weekend is the time for locals to come to Benderson Park to put on a good showing for officials touring from the Federation Internationale des Societes d'Aviron, also known as FISA, or the international rowing federation.
Officials from that federation will give the park one final inspection before deciding Sept. 2 if the venue will be awarded both the 2016 World Rowing Cup and 2017 World Rowing Championships.
"It would tell the story to let them know that we're doing this, and we support rowing, and we want them to know we're serious about this and when we host it, it's something special," he said.
"And we want to take rowing to the next level."
This weekend's event features 1,600 athletes from 80 cities around the United States.
They will all need a place to stay, and with the Masters age group ranging from 21 to 84, the accommodations tend to vary.
"Traditionally we see Masters tend to gravitate to condos a little bit more than youth sporting events do. We do anticipate we'll see a little bit of that trend with that," Rissler said. "Certainly we'll see a lot of hotels in and around University Parkway, the airport and I-75 corridor will have the most bookings from the event."
Rob Ferguson, director of sales at the Fairfield Inn and Suites and Holiday Inn in Lakewood Ranch, said the event has nearly sold out both hotels this week.
"This isn't a busy time of year and we probably doubled the occupancy we normally have. I know teams are staying all over the place. Normally they stay around the lake but a lot of hotels got involved and business was spread out pretty evenly," he said, adding that rowers often create repeat business.
Kathy and Tony Latino of Downingtown, Pa., are staying at Ferguson's Holiday Inn while running their JR's Soda Shoppe at the rowing championships. The couple are regulars at U.S. Rowing regatta events because of the profit they make from rowers and fans.
This is their first time in Sarasota, thanks to the advice of a fellow vendor at a Tennessee event.
"We figured this would be a captive audience with all the rowers because we just don't sell soda, we sell spring water, which is what they usually drink before they row, and they'll come back to get the iced tea and lemonade after they row," Kathy Latino said.
During their off-time, they plan to visit family in Bartow and explore the beaches along Siesta Key, Longboat Key and points north.
The couple got hooked on being rowing vendors at the Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia, which is the largest collegiate regatta in the country. Usually profits tend to decline at these events if a major soda supplier like Coca-Cola comes in, she added.
"Most of the time, regattas are the biggest events we do," she said.
The vendors as well as the athletes need places to eat, too, and area restaurants are gearing up for a busy weekend. Judy Athari, director of sales at the Hampton Inn & Suites and Courtyard Marriott in University Park said the hotels are like mini visitor centers, sending the rowing guests off to places to shop and dine.
The Broken Egg, a Lakewood Ranch destination for breakfast and lunch, is preparing with extra food and staff. Manager Rafael Monedero said he ordered backup food and brought in two cooks and more severs "just in case." The Chipotle at 97 N. Cattlemen Road has also stocked up on extra food and four more employees.
The nearest Carrabba's at 5425 University Parkway already has reservations for four parties with 20 people in each party.
"We deal with (the rowing competition) all the time since we're right across the street. We get all kinds of crazy stuff," manager Drew Dalabakis said.
At the upscale Polo Grill and Bar in Lakewood Ranch, teams have stopped by all week for lunch and dinner and reservations have been made for off-site catering.
"A lot of people around here like to host rowing teams, so they've hired our chefs to come into their homes and cook for the teams," said Chris Kohatsu, director of marketing and communications at the restaurant.
Kohatsu said the Grill has plenty of reservations for Sunday, the last night of the competition.
"When people travel around the country, they don't want to eat at a chain," she said. "They want to experience local cuisine."
Jonathan Rich and Lisa Snyder from Winter Park are also staying at the Holiday Inn Lakewood Ranch, and said other rowers opted to bring the RV and head for the Sun-N-Fun RV Resort on Fruitville Road for a festive atmosphere.
Rissler noted that the resort is getting increased use from visiting athletes and families.
"Sun-N-Fun gets utilized quite a bit with our sports clientele because they have a lot of amenities on site," Rissler said. "They have the gym, they have the pool. We're seeing that as a trend with a lot of our sporting groups using Sun-N-Fun quite a bit."
Rich and Snyder are unaffiliated rowers in the singles event and plan to visit the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art and Marie Selby Botanical Gardens during their stay to relax. Club teams tend to organize team meals and head out to a local pub to celebrate, Rich added, or catch up with competitors.
"I just met a gentleman whom I raced before and raced across the water, and for the first time we're standing on land together and we shake hands, and he's from New York," Rich said. "It's not a huge sport at the masters level, so you tend to encounter the same people again and again, and it makes it a lot of fun."
Snyder especially hopes to return to Nathan Benderson Park for a potential World Rowing Championships.
She would be here rooting for her daughter, Katelin Snyder, who is a coxswain for the national women's eight team. Katelin is on her way this week to the 10-day World Rowing Championships in Chungju, South Korea, she said.
Hoteliers like Ferguson expect rowers like Snyder to be here again, well before 2017.
"There are several tournaments that happen in the first and second quarters, and we see the same teams come back several times during the year," Ferguson said.