The tournament boom1/31/2024
The Iowa High School Athletics Association (IHSAA) and the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union (IGHSAU) bring in thousands of fans with their annual tournaments at Wells Fargo Arena each year. Athletes, families, friends and students alike make their way to downtown Des Moines to celebrate the year’s athletic achievements and cheer on their respective teams at boys state wrestling and boys and girls basketball. Fans pack the stands during the events, but what are they doing when their favorite athletes are not competing? Oftentimes, they are contributing to the local economy.
“The dollar goes a lot of different places when people come to town,” said Greg Edwards, president and CEO of Catch Des Moines.
Catch Des Moines put an estimated economic impact of all three tournaments — boys wrestling, boys and girls basketball — at about $3.5 million. Fans from all over the state take these weeks as an opportunity to experience what Des Moines has to offer in dining, lodging, shopping and entertainment.
Located less than 500 feet from Wells Fargo Arena is Buzzard Billy’s at 615 Third St. The restaurant, a popular choice among sports fans, features a variety of American, Southern and Cajun cuisine. Being in the heart of downtown, Buzzard Billy’s is an event-driven business, according to its managing partner of 10 years, Jeff Kirby.
“There’s so many events throughout the year, whether it’s the sports tournaments or the larger conventions, they all have a pretty big impact on our business,” said Kirby.
Kirby said Buzzard Billy’s busiest season, in terms of sales, is between January and June — particularly February and March, state tournament season. To handle the rush, Kirby said it just requires more planning. The restaurant reviews the sales of years past to forecast their schedules.
“The state wrestling tournament is typically our busiest week of the year,” said Kirby. “We keep pretty good records as far as staffing we’ve done in years past to be able to properly prepare. Staffing is the critical aspect of it. It’s kind of the secret to success to me.”
Kirby relies on staff members in the kitchen who have worked at Buzzard Billy’s for years. They do their best to retain “top-tier” talent in order to do high-volume sales.
Getting people to the restaurant is never an issue, so they do not need to run promotions or specials. The focus is serving as many people as they can.
“It’s a lot of bigger groups. You get a lot of people, especially wrestling people, that come from a lot of small towns all throughout the state,” said Kirby. “They’ve been coming into Buzzard Billy’s year after year, as long as we’ve been here. We’ll see a lot of the same faces year after year that have been our loyal customers for a long time.”
During the week of state wrestling, Buzzard Billy’s opens its lower level to serve concession-style food. Kirby considers it a “service to the public,” providing food and drinks to as many people as they can.
“I think that the wrestling tournament and the basketball tournaments are probably some of my favorite weeks,” said Kirby. “A lot of times, the managers will end up working 70-80 hours, but it’s fun, and we enjoy it.”
As soon as teams and athletes begin to qualify for the state tournaments, schools, families, current students and even alumni begin to book hotels for the week of the events, according to Jessica Dunker, president and CEO of the Iowa Hotel and Lodging Association.
“Tournaments bring capacity-filling numbers of people to area hotels,” said Dunker. “It is an extremely important annual bump in business, especially midweek, and weather like we’re facing, in what is generally a slow time of year.”
The hotel industry, like many others, was devastated by COVID-19. Previous reporting by CITYVIEW showed occupancy rates at some hotels in the state were as low as 10% during the worst of the pandemic. Dunker said events like the state tournaments are important to returning to pre-pandemic levels.
“Hotel and lodging properties in the entire metro benefit from these large sporting events and appreciate the opportunity to host and serve as ‘home base’ for the many excited Iowans who come to town to cheer on their teams,” Dunker said. “The hotel and lodging space depends on events like these as part of the long road to recovery post-pandemic. While revenues and room occupancies are returning to normal and even growth levels, we have three years of loss we’re trying to recover from.”
Reservations of all kinds are made for tournament weeks. Schools and teams typically book large, but usually no more than four people to a room. Dunker said that chains are popular with visitors and fans. However, there is some interest in boutique hotels.
“Some families and fans enjoy these styles of rooms, and even some schools will enjoy these styles of hotels,” she said.
To accommodate the increase in traffic, hotel staffing levels are increased during tournament days as they do during similar sell-out situations. However, occupancy rates decline when more metro teams and athletes make the cut as locals do not need overnight accommodations.
“Locations near the event center tend to do really well, especially for winter events due to the skywalk system, as well as eliminating the need to find parking at the venue if they can just walk there,” Dunker said.
A strong interest exists in suburban hotels, too. Those located near metro malls are popular for their proximity to shopping, dining and entertainment offerings during tournament downtimes.
“We treat wrestling, girls basketball and boys basketball like the holiday season. I treat those weeks like they’re weeks in December,” said Randy Tennison, general manager of Jordan Creek Town Center.
Tennison said, across the board, the retail and dining experiences offered by Jordan Creek see significant increases during tournament weeks. While he did not offer specific metrics, he did say that one of the events tends to outpace the others.
“Honestly, in my experience, I believe that wrestling seems to have a stronger increase,” said Tennison. “A lot of that is, it seems, like there are more schools from outside the metro that come in for wrestling… it just seems like there are more people from other areas of the state.”
Working in favor of Jordan Creek is the fact that some of its retailers have only one or very few stores in the state.
“When people come to the area, they’re getting to shop at places they don’t always get to shop at elsewhere in the state. They’re not getting to get around those retailers very often, whether it’s Apple or Pottery Barn or Williams Sonoma. We just announced Lego, so that’ll be something similar.”
One of the leaders of those retailers, Chrissy Brabandt, the store leader at SCHEELS, agrees that extra traffic is seen during tournament weeks. Brabandt has worked for the company since 2001.
“We know the dates well in advance, so we are able to schedule extra crew to help us out with the extra traffic,” she said. “From just before lunch until the evening events start is usually the most traffic. Because stuff is going on usually all day, the traffic flow is usually pretty consistent Friday and Saturday.”
To accommodate all the extra visitors to Jordan Creek, Tennison and his team adjust general operations. Security and cleaning are increased to similar levels to that of the holiday season.
“It’s fun to have February and March weeks feel like the holiday,” said Tennison. “February is typically the slowest month for shopping centers nationwide. For us, to be able to have state wrestling here, makes it feel like a December week, which is a blast. It’s fun to have that energy in February. It’s fun to have that energy in March that you typically don’t see at a shopping center.” ♦