WEST BRADENTON -- Record tourism, packed beaches and an expanding IMG Academy have created an opportunity for new hotels in West Bradenton.
As part of Whiting Preston's preliminary Crossroads village transforming 1,300 acres, two 250-room hotels are penciled in. One would be in a commercial district near 75th Street West and Cortez Road, and another would be close to IMG Academy's west entrance near 53rd Avenue West and Bollettieri Boulevard.
IMG Academy has want
ed hotels closer to its campus for some time to accommodate all the visiting athletes, parents and even more full sets of teams. While the master-developed Crossroads is a 20-year-plan that has yet to be formally filed, IMG would rather have a hotel sooner than later.
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"We're going to continue to go after events and both at the youth level and college and professional level," said Chip McCarthy, chief financial officer and vice president of finance at IMG Performance, the operator of IMG Academy.
Closer commute needed
On Cortez Road, vacationers have limited options on their way to the beach to find a place to stay. The Holiday Inn Express & Suites and Best Western Plus are the only two brand name hotels.
Couple IMG's world-class training facilities with beaches and other amenities nearby, available hotel rooms are vital to IMG efforts to keep existing events here and to attract new events like the preseason college football camps IMG hopes to woo, McCarthy said.
"If you look at the list of the types of teams that come here or are coming here -- we've got NCAA Division II track and field coming here in a couple years -- and that's going to be very much of a challenge," McCarthy said. "Typically they want to be nearby. They don't want to be shuttled an hour back and forth to the venue."
One such event is the Schwan's USA Cup, the nation's largest international youth soccer tournament. IMG officials are working to bring that tournament, which currently attracts more than 1,000 teams, from Blaine, Minn.
About 30,000 youth, adults, executives, coaches and trainers visit IMG for an average of 1.5 weeks per year, IMG Academy's vice president of sales and marketing Chris Ciaccio has said. Some of those can be full clubs like the six Major League Soccer clubs that visited in February, coupled with the semi-pro and international teams. While IMG Academy can accommodate some teams, many of them have to find hotel rooms.
Some of the large events, like Major League Soccer spring training or Canadian Football League camps, come during peak tourism season, pushing available hotels further out while the roads are filling up, McCarthy said.
Major League Soccer athletes stayed at various hotels ranging from the Hampton Inn & Suites in downtown Bradenton to the Hyatt Regency in Sarasota. And while the Hyatt provides fine accommodations, one MLS club official who stayed there told the Herald the traffic made the drive to IMG too far.
Ideally, teams like to be within a 10-minute drive from campus, McCarthy said.
The Arizona Cardinals stopped at IMG in September so the team could practice here in the week leading up to their game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Cardinals stayed at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota, but if the Ritz had been full, that team couldn't come because of the requirements of a NFL team's stay.
"It really depends on what the team wants and what their budget ultimately is," McCarthy said. "Like an NFL team or New York soccer club may stay at the Ritz-Carlton, and other groups or teams are a little more budget conscious and may stay at other low- to mid-range hotels."
Bob Monica, general manager at the Holiday Inn & Suites, 4450 Cortez Road W, is wary of another hotel coming on board soon if it doesn't differentiate itself from existing hotels in the neighborhood.
"If it's going to be another select service hotel like ours, it's not going to create business, it's going to be more competition for the same business," Monica said. "If it's a large hotel that has sufficient meeting space and would draw large groups in, that may be a different story."
Monica, who oversees 102 hotel rooms plus 27 suites, said more corporate meetings and conferences need to be attracted to the area. But most hotels in Bradenton -- including his -- are lacking that meeting/conference center space for a large event. A new 250-room hotel should offer 20,000 to 30,000 square feet of meeting space to meet that demand, he ventured.
"What you need is somebody to offer a significant amount of meeting space so that it attracts groups that would be housed not only at the originating hotel, but perhaps to flow out to our hotel as well," Monica said.
McCarthy agrees that meeting space would be a great addition to a hotel near IMG.
"All these groups that we bring in, they do require meeting space or even utilize a ballroom," McCarthy said. Even the Arizona Cardinals did a practice walkthrough inside the Ritz ballroom because it was raining, he added.
"Even dining facilities -- teams like to eat together, so large cafeteria-style food services would be ideal," he said.
Preston's Crossroads overall could complement IMG, as Crossroads seeks permission to build 6,500 homes and 2.78 million square feet of commercial space in addition to the two hotels.
"IMG is an important economic pillar in Manatee County," Preston said. "We surround them, and it's important if they are going to expand, we can try to accommodate that. We think this offers a golden opportunity to create West Bradenton as a way to live, work and play."
Crossroads would place a commercial district and mixed-use neighborhood to the west of IMG Academy, and the commercial shopping would be a great complement to IMG's campus, McCarthy added. A walking/biking trail is planned through development. While he's not sure about the exact location of the trail, McCarthy would love to have some connectedness to the campus and provide ways to extend IMG's tram service to shuttle students and athletes back and forth between the community, shopping and IMG.
Relying on more than IMG
IMG is great for business, as the Holiday Inn and Best Western both gain bookings for IMG-related business, but Monica cautions that a hotel shouldn't be built solely relying on one customer.
"If he's just here to do IMG, if that's what's attracting them, while they do have a significant amount of business, it's not enough for a hotel to exist on," Monica said. "It's not enough to do IMG and thrive. You have to do other types of business."
Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, has tried to get the message out to hoteliers about diversifying business despite record tourism numbers.
"It's easy to say, gosh, all this sports business, we need more hotels, we need more hotels," Falcione said. "I can talk to each and every one of you that may be saying, 'Oh my gosh, we need more hotels because we don't want business to shift away from the success we're having.'"
At a recent Sarasota-Manatee Hotel Committee meeting, Falcione noted that the two-county region is becoming a sports tourism magnet and hotel development over the next two years is imminent. But he stressed that hoteliers have to look at doing more than sports tourism business.
"We need to diversify to more than just sports, especially on the mainland," Falcione said. "Niche markets -- the film commission business, the corporate meeting business -- we've got to be working those markets."
Brian Long, director of development for Widewaters Hotels, recognizes IMG's strength after the Syracuse, N.Y., company opened a Hampton Inn & Suites in downtown Bradenton as part of a renovation of the Manatee River Hotel. Still, for that hotel to be successful, it needed to be located where different business is generated, which is why it picked downtown.
"I think it (IMG Academy) has a potential to be a great demand generator, but if you're counting on just one thing, it takes one thing to go wrong for all your assumptions to fall apart," Long said.
Whatever hotel developer is coming on board to build, they have to be able to put up more equity than in years past to get a brand new hotel built, Long said.
"Any time you are talking to a lender about a project, particularly new construction where there's no existing income or track record, they are going to want to see a fairly thorough study provided to see excess demand and need for more rooms in the market," Long said. "Any time we do a hotel, we commission an independent study to take a look at the market and take a look at our assumptions and help a lender to get comfortable with the additional rooms in the market."
Long said hotels are risky propositions in nature and developers have to know what they're getting into before deciding to build.
So speculation can be just as bad for hotels at it was for housing during the real estate boom, Falcione warned, when it comes to picking the types of events that will fill a hotel.
"We've got to stay away from greed and really pick and choose what events or what kind of business we can be the most successful with," Falcione said. "During the real estate boom, the greedy builders are no longer in business. The greedy builders were way far out with all these spec homes, the water shut off and they went bankrupt. You'll never see them again. The conservative builders are fruitful right now."
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.