Columbus area innkeepers are preparing for one of their busiest weekends of the year, one week after the city’s largest hotel closed.

The Clarion Hotel and Conference Center closed July 10, the day before it was sold during a sheriff’s foreclosure sale. Its 253 guest rooms represented one-sixth of the entire Columbus area hospitality room inventory.

Occupancy rates at Columbus area hotels and motels are high throughout the summer, and room rates are expected to inevitably increase as a result of supply and demand, several local hospitality experts say.

However, it’s too early to provide a definitive outlook on how Clarion’s closing will change the local lodging climate, said Karen Niverson, Columbus Area Visitors Center executive director.

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Figures that may explain the preliminary impact, such as July occupancy rates and revenue, won’t be available until mid-August, she said.

But even if Bartholomew County’s largest hotel were still in operation, every room in the county would still be reserved for at least the next four weekends, Niverson said.

“The primary demand in July for rooms due to the closing has been from sports teams,” said Janeen Sprague, president and CEO of Sprague Hotel Developers.

Properties managed by Sprague include four in the Taylorsville/Edinburgh area: Hilton Garden Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Comfort Inn and Hampton Inn.

This week, a 16-and-under girls softball tournament at six different Bartholomew County facilities has created the greatest demand for rooms. Thursday through Sunday, the USSSA National Championship will host 1,900 players, as well as family members from nine states and Canada, tournament director Tim Foster of Columbus said.

In addition, Sunday’s Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis usually fills some rooms in the Columbus area as part of the event’s $29 million economic impact on central Indiana.

The La Quinta Inn and Suites on Carrie Lane does not expect to have a weekend vacancy until at least mid-September, said Ray Wagner, director of operations with motel owner Columbus Hospitality LLC.

And with the Clarion out of the picture, Wagner expects all the hotels he manages, which includes the Sleep Inn and Suites on West Jonathan Moore Pike, to also fill up quickly, he said.

Immediately after word was received in early June that the Clarion would no longer be available, visitors center sports tourism director Eric Marvin began hunting down alternative lodgings for this weekend’s tournament, Foster said.

“We had all the players relocated prior to the Clarion’s closing,” Niverson said.

To Foster’s surprise, some Indianapolis area rooms were still available in Greenwood and Southport for this weekend, he said. However, Marvin had to reach out to Greensburg to the east, Nashville to the west, and as far south as Scottsburg to get all required lodgings.

Scottsburg and Greensburg are further away than either organizers or parents prefer, Foster said. Even more importantly, “teams do not like being told where to stay,” he said.

Increases begin

The closing of the Clarion has already increased meeting and banquet bookings at the Hilton Garden Inn, said Sprague, who also operates the Holiday Inn Express, Comfort Inn and Hampton Inn in the Taylorsville/Edinburgh area.

“We have hired additional sales, banquet, and culinary staff (at the Hilton Garden Inn), and are finding creative solutions to accommodate many of the Clarion’s medium-sized groups in our spaces,” Sprague said.

When the new Fairfield by Marriott opens in November near the intersection of Merchant’s Mile and Linden Park Place on the west side of Columbus, another 96 rooms and 2,000 square feet of conference space will become available, Wagner said.

But that amount of new conference space can accommodate no more than 150 people, compared to the 1,000-person capacity that the Clarion had, Wagner said.

Over the course of a year, local hotels have about a 60 percent occupancy rate, Sprague said. While both she and Wagner expect short-term benefits from higher occupancy rates, both also said the entire hospitality industry will suffer by the loss of larger conventions hosted by the Clarion for many years.

That will cut into a local tourism industry that has been bringing $257 million annually into the local economy.

Since early June, The Commons has experienced an uptick in the number of inquiries regarding a variety of events, facilities manager Shanda Sasse said. Although The Commons is doing its best to accommodate requests, dates are filling up quickly, Sasse said.

For wedding receptions and other sit-down events, The Commons can handle up to 400 people on the upper level of the facility, she said.

Sports impacts ahead

While sports tourism has played a key role in increased tourism revenues, the USSSA — which is hosting seven age groups in national sports tournaments this year in Columbus — may have to cut that number down to four because of the changes in lodging availability, Foster said.

That likely will mean giving up on younger athletes who often prefer playing in cities with major tourist attractions such as Orlando, Florida, he said.

Due to the shortage of lodgings, the remaining tournaments may have to be spread out over a week or two, Foster said.

But that creates another obstacle. Foster said hotels and motels that cater to business clients on weekdays are reluctant to block off large numbers of rooms to young athletes in fear of alienating regular guests.  

Tournament changes will be considered during the USSSA National Convention, Nov. 13 to 17 in Daytona Beach, Florida, he said.

Rate changes

It’s not likely that room rates at the remaining lodgings will immediately go up, Sprague said.

“All of the local hotels have already established rates for 2017,” she said. “I would anticipate that local hotels will continue to be competitive with their rates going forward.”

But the closing of the Clarion, as well as the laws of supply and demand, will naturally prompt hotels and motels to eventually adopt higher rates, Wagner said.

That’s the message Foster said he got when he and Marvin met with a group of hotel and motel managers and developers to discuss the lack of lodgings.

“They were very understanding,” Foster said.  “But room rates will go up a bit, because these companies are in business to make money.”

What may be the hardest truth to accept is that without the Clarion’s conference center, Columbus is simply unable to accommodate larger groups that have traditionally come into Bartholomew County.

Although Niverson expects the loss of the conference center will eventually be addressed with new lodging facilities, there has been no work of immediate propsoals, she said.

“It will take some time for this new reality to set it,” Niverson said.

The sooner that new lodging facility plans and investments in Columbus are made, the less permanent damage will be inflicted upon the area’s reputation for hospitality, she said.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.