Of all the cities hosting March Madness games this year, Houston, which opens its doors to the men's NCAA Final Four on Saturday, will set ticket-holders back the most money.
The Houston Chronicle reports that lest anyone think Houston suddenly has turned into Dubai on the Bayou, the numbers tell a slightly different story.
"The issue in Houston is hotel expense," said Ken Robinson of Runzheimer International, a business management consulting company that crunched the numbers and pegged the cost of a three-star-or-better hotel room within five miles of the city center at about $375 a night, more expensive than normal because of the Final Four.
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"A premium factor is applied," Robinson explained. "It's scarcity and supply and demand."
Frankly, a Final Four city in the heat of the tournament is just going to be more expensive than a first-round city, because that first round is less prestigious and the cities -- think Des Moines, Iowa, or Providence, Rhode Island -- often are smaller.
The good news? In general, meals and gas are cheaper here, according to Runzheimer. Beer (domestic, at a restaurant) is a steal here at $4.02, compared with $4.61 in Anaheim, Calif. A latte costs about $3.45, compared with $4.75 in Chicago. Gasoline is 43 cents a gallon cheaper than in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Generally, Oklahoma City offered the biggest basketball bargain this year, Robinson said. (But a good Texan will tell you it really ought to.)
In normal times, Houston is only in the top 20 most expensive cities, Robinson said. But these are not normal times.
Houston businesses are girded for the crush. For hotels, the frenzy surged once teams were decided.
Staff at the Westin Galleria and the Westin Oaks knew ahead of time that they would be an official team and fan hotel, respectively. University of Oklahoma alumni associations and other groups began calling as soon as the Sooners' berth was decided, said John Oakley, sales and marketing director.
The hotel lucked out with OU, since the nerve center of its fan base is just a half-day's drive away, on Interstates 35 and 45.
"It's crucial," Oakley said. "You really want a team that's got a big fan base and a traveling fan base."
The Four Seasons Hotel near Discovery Green -- where the March Madness Music Festival will host Maroon 5, Pitbull, Kendrick Lamar and other acts -- is nearly booked, said general manager Tom Segesta. This past Sunday, as teams clinched their spots in college basketball's final showdown, the 468-room hotel reached near-capacity. During a high-demand period such as the Final Four, rates are a little higher than normal, he said.
A call to the Four Seasons reservations Wednesday afternoon confirmed that the only room available on Saturday night was a one-bedroom presidential suite in the north wing. Cost: $12,300.
Not surprisingly, people also are shelling out big bucks for access and attendance. Cyberspace is filled with sports travel packages for the area's luxury hotels.
PrimeSport.com, an online sports travel and event company, is hawking four-night packages with VIP event access, game day transportation, official NCAA souvenirs, tickets and stays at hotels such as the Four Seasons, the Omni, Westin, The Houstonian and the Magnolia. Prices start at $2,300 and run as high $4,100. The catch: Cancellations aren't allowed.
A trip to Houston is also a fine excuse to shop. All four team hotels are clustered uptown around the Galleria -- Oklahoma at the Westin Galleria, Villanova at the Royal Sonesta, Syracuse at JW Marriott and North Carolina at the Hilton Post Oak -- so the luxury mall is bracing for a Black Friday atmosphere in terms of traffic and crowds, said Andrew Huang, marketing director at the Galleria. That includes additional staffing to manage parking areas and attractions, such as the ice skating rink.
"The Galleria is really kind of a gathering place for Houston, and we tend to be the epicenter when there are big events like this," Huang said.
Players, fans, families, boosters, and corporate visitors courting clients mean a broad mix of diners and shoppers, especially for athletic wear and sporting goods retailers, Huang said. During the recent Texas Bowl, which saw Louisiana State University trounce Texas Tech, a similar mix of visitors packed the mall and restaurants, he added.
Anthony Russo, owner of the many Russo's New York Pizzeria restaurants in Houston, said the Final Four's impact will be undeniable for any business in the area, especially restaurants. With locations on Polk Street, in Midtown, the Galleria area and Kirby Drive, Russo said he's well-positioned in several visitor hubs.
In 2011, the last time Houston hosted the Final Four, Russo saw a boom in deliveries and takeout orders. He's expecting his Polk Street location, across from the Hyatt Regency and Doubletree hotels, and the Kirby Drive restaurant nearest NRG Stadium, where the teams will compete, will be "jammed busy" this time, starting Thursday.
Russo began a social media blitz last week and will begin stocking extra supplies during the latter part of the week.
"We buy everything fresh, so it's not something you can order so far in advance," he said. "It's a big party weekend, and we're ready for it."
So are the supermarkets.
"Kroger is anticipating an increase in the sales of guacamole, chips, soda, chicken wings, adult beverages and other game-watching essentials," said Kristal Howard, a Kroger spokeswoman.
But for visitors to town, signature Texas barbecue has to be on the must-do list. Levi Goode, who runs Goode Company BBQ and the whole suite of Goode restaurants, is ready to bring the meat.
"We want to be good ambassadors for the city," Goode said.
The last time the Final Four was in Houston, plenty of guests were from out of town, so Goode Co. has been training staff for what to expect.
"We're pretty much maxed out on what we're able to smoke," Goode said.