Final Four means big bucks for San Antonio

Even at double the usual rate, it didn’t take long for the carriage house apartment behind Shelley Galbraith’s King William Street home to get snatched up by a Massachusetts couple making plans to come to San Antonio for the NCAA Final Four.

Galbraith’s hospitality will earn her about $600 over the three nights starting Friday, part of the $600,000 that online booking site Airbnb says San Antonio hosts will earn over one of the biggest weekends in San Antonio tourism history.

That’s chump change compared with the overall $186 million in direct spending that Steve Nivin of the Sabér Research Institute at St. Mary’s University projects that fans will shell out here before, during and after the games.

It’s expected to be a big week for ride-hailing drivers as well.

“We can tell after big events where drivers come from,” Uber spokesman Travis Considine said. “South by Southwest, we were able to tell that drivers came to Austin from 14 cities across Texas.

Whether it’s a resident like Galbraith getting exposure for her downtown rental or an opportunity for local leaders to showcase city amenities to corporate bigwigs, the tournament is putting San Antonio on a stage that few events can match.

“It’s a slam dunk for San Antonio,” said Richard Oliver, a spokesman for Visit San Antonio, which along with San Antonio Sports and other members of the San Antonio Local Organizing Committee has spent the past few years planning to make sure the city doesn’t fall flat.

It’s not just the more than 93,000 outside visitors who will be crowding Alamo Plaza, the River Walk and the Final Four celebrations at the Convention Center and Hemisfair Park, 70,000 of whom are Alamodome ticket holders for the games themselves. Millions of viewers may catch glimpses of sunny San Antonio on their television screens, and the city has been on the minds of both players and fans long before March Madness began.

The NCAA’s 14-year television, internet and wireless rights agreement with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting System to broadcast the championship is worth $10.8 billion alone.

“To some extent, it has become part of the national culture and attracts interest from people who may not have watched a college basketball game,” Nivin noted in his study of the economic effect, which was commissioned by the organizing committee. “It has grown into one of the largest sporting events in the country.”

San Antonio’s exposure began months before the final games, in part thanks to what Oliver calls the “ESPN scroll.”

“Every game, every conference championship … it becomes the ‘road to San Antonio,’” he said. “Those are the kind of seismic things that happen when you have something this big. You have that San Antonio brand that’s out there over and over again.”

Adding to the mix is Semana Santa, or the Mexican Holy Week, which is a weeklong holiday that each year sends a surge of Mexican nationals here to shop and visit families.

“We do love that confluence of Semana Santa and the Final Four,” Oliver said. “As we look back in a few weeks and we kind of tally up our abacus, it should be a really nice stretch for San Antonio.”

Airbnb rentals are only supplementing the rush of hotel reservations coming in since March 25, when the winning four of the initial 68 tournament teams were announced. According to travel site Kayak, median hotel rates this weekend are $477, nearly triple the $161 rate a year ago at the same time.

It’s not just downtown hotels getting a piece of the lodging action, Oliver said. Hotels near the airport and even farther out have seen jumps in reservations.

Rebecca Ybarra-Ramirez, director of the convention and visitors bureau in San Marcos, about an hour north, said hotels there were seeing an increase in Mexican nationals who may not have booked in advance. Confronted with either “no vacancies” or astronomical rates, they’re deciding to center their entire vacations around the famed outlet malls.

“We’re just very grateful that the Mexican peso has strengthened and that Mexican visitors are driving in,” she said.

San Antonio International Airport officials have spent months preparing for the influx of traffic, airport spokesman Rich Stinson said.

“The airport runway … at San Antonio International Airport is the first Main Street that people coming into San Antonio will experience,” he said.

To know what they were in for, the airport last year sent several representatives to see how things worked at last year’s Final Four in Phoenix.

In addition to commercial traffic, the airport was prepared to receive 500 general aviation (both corporate and private noncommercial) aircraft, including those carrying each of the teams. That’s more than four times the usual number.

That meant a parking plan for all the planes and coordinating with fixed-base operators to ensure adequate fuel and amenities.

The Transportation Security Administration has been operating checkpoints in both airport terminals at full staff to include additional K-9 sniffer dogs. It’s also opening at 3 a.m. instead of 3:45 a.m. to help speed processing.

The airport is rolling out two informational robots that cost $26,000 to rent for the month as it tries to innovate. Concessionaires have upped their inventories to prevent shortages of pretzels or fried chicken. There also will be live entertainment in the terminals, with performers instructed to know the schools’ fight songs.

Outside the terminal, completion of the $178 million Consolidated Rental Car Facility has allowed the airport to reallocate curb space that was used for rental car shuttle buses. It’s now open to taxis and ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, alleviating what had been an often congested inner curb.

“We’re at maximum staffing,” Stinson said. “The entire week of the Final Four was a no-leave, no-vacation period.”

As of Thursday morning, all four teams had arrived and the only glitch could be blamed on the heavy rains that pummeled the city Wednesday night. The Villanova Wildcats were delayed about 20 minutes because of lightning.

“I like to think it’s just Mother Nature kind of giving the city a bath and knocking the pollen out of the air so we’ll be good for the rest of the week,” said Mary Ullmann Japhet, senior vice president of communications at San Antonio Sports.

Planning for the days-long spectacle started as soon as San Antonio won the bid to host in November 2014, she said.

“The Alamodome is looking fantastic. The floor is in, the decor is up on the outside and the inside, and the crews are ready to welcome 70,000 guests,” she said. “It’s always exciting when it comes to fruition, when you see all these plans start to take shape and become very tangible.”

It’s been a rocky couple of years, including fears that Texas “bathroom bill” restricting access to public restrooms to transgender men and women would bring politics into the mix and scuttle the whole thing.

“We watched that carefully,” she said. “But as we anticipated, here we are. It’s Final Four week in San Antonio, and we’re going to host a great one.”

Which works great for Galbraith, who said she gets to see the city through new eyes thanks to her guests.

“I think it’s fantastic when we have any opportunity to show off our city because tourists love coming here,” she said. “The city gets a lot of accolades for how welcoming it is and how easy it is to get around and how many beautiful things there are. And the more opportunity we have to we show that off, the better.”

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