March Madness tourism expected to boost Philly’s recovering hospitality industry

The Wells Fargo Center.  (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Wells Fargo Center. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

March Madness is sweeping through Philadelphia, as the city prepares to be the epicenter of the basketball world, when it will host three sold-out NCAA tournament games this weekend.

Thousands of hoop heads are expected to visit and spend millions of dollars, bringing a much-needed revenue boost for some of the businesses hit hardest by COVID.

Philadelphia’s hospitality industry hasn’t had much to celebrate in the last few years.

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The pandemic caused tourist visits to plummet, and strictly limited the number of locals who could go out to eat at bars and restaurants. Since 2020, the city’s fourth largest industry has shed about a third of its workforce, and lost hundreds of millions of dollars.

But Ed Grose, who heads the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association, expects the city’s restaurants, bars, and hotels to greatly benefit from the increased tourism.

“We’re expecting to see about 15,000 visitors for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight tournaments, which will translate into about 8,100 total hotel room nights, with a projected economic impact of $12.2 million. Those are all great numbers for us,” Grose said. “I look at this tournament as our coming out party as we rebound from the pandemic.”

Grose said business for area hotels is beginning to trend toward pre-pandemic levels.

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The North Carolina Tar Heels men’s basketball team bus parked outside the Hilton Philadelphia at Penn’s Landing where the team is staying for their March Madness matchup against the UCLA Bruins. (Courtesy of Alan Cagle)

“We’re very optimistic that the worst is behind us and that we have a lot of things to look forward to,” he said. “I think these games are going to be the most visible because of the TV coverage. We’ve had other events here [since the pandemic started], but this one is going to put Philadelphia on the national stage.”

Hotel managers share Grose’s optimism, including Alan Cagle with the Hilton Philadelphia at Penn’s Landing.

He said business was beginning to pick up late last year, until the omicron variant ruined those efforts. Now, business is trending upward again, and he’s taking many more bookings than last year. But his bottom line still misses 2019’s business travel.

“We’re not seeing as much as we’d like to see because we don’t think offices are fully reopened yet. But the communication we’re getting is that we’ll start seeing more traction now, whether the numbers ever get back to where they were pre-pandemic, I don’t know,” he said. “I think the future is going to take a couple of years for that segment of business to kind of get back to where it was.”

Cagle said that heading into this year, revenue at the Penn’s Landing Hilton was down 30% compared to 2019, but he expects the business to rebound about 20% this year. That’s due in part to the city easing its COVID mandates.

“That really was taking a hard hit on events like proms. It was impacting weddings and the clients that were even willing to consider to come to Philadelphia. Now we’re starting to get acquainted and come back to the hotels without fears,” he said.

Bars and restaurants are also expected to see an uptick in revenue this weekend, particularly in Center City, which has seen a 22% increase in pedestrians this year. That’s a return to about 70% of pre-pandemic levels.

Kate Moroney Miller is chief operating officer for The Vintage Syndicate, which owns and operates restaurants across the city, including some in Center City.

She said this week’s tourism, coupled with the city easing its COVID mandates, will bring much-needed foot traffic to her businesses.

“Since January, everywhere has been pretty slow,” she said. “This March has been the spike we’ve been waiting for. And obviously, that has to do with a lot of the restrictions being lifted. With the Sweet 16 coming, we’ve already seen an uptick.”

Moroney Miller expects lots of foot traffic throughout the remainder of the tournament, and even into the summer, including at her businesses in non-touristy neighborhoods.

“We may usually only see people that live here going to those locations, whereas the tourists will kind of center in around 13th and Sansom,” she said. “But foot traffic has been great in the neighborhoods this week, especially with the nice weather, from Fishtown down to the Italian Market.”

While she expects an uptick in business this weekend, Moroney Miller is hesitant to give a solid revenue estimate.

“We’ve learned over the past two years that we’re not quite at a point where it’s even worth figuring that kind of thing out,” she said. “Obviously, we’re looking for increased foot traffic. We’ve increased orders and staffing, especially at the sports bars. But no formal estimate.”

Philly officials expect a full recovery for the industry in the next few years, as business begins to pick back up for restaurants, and more tourists return to visit the city.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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