With the start of Texas A&M’s COVID-altered football season less than two weeks away, local business leaders are preparing for a potential economic boost even as they remain acutely aware that reduced seating capacity at Kyle Field and other safety-related measures will likely limit those gains.
The Aggies open the season at home against Vanderbilt on Sept. 26. Capacity at Kyle Field has been set at 25% of the normal operating amount of 110,000, according to Athletics Director Ross Bjork, which puts the expected number of fans at approximately 27,500. Bjork said alterations to that number are possible.
Business owners expressed above all a desire that A&M players and staff remain safe during the season and that they as operators also can limit the spread of the coronavirus, while they hope the season brings more people into local shops, restaurants and hotels.
After more than six months of economic fallout from the pandemic, optimism and uneasiness are common threads among many Aggieland leaders and business owners.
‘Not going to be what we’re used to’
Glen Brewer, president of the Bryan-College Station Chamber of Commerce, described area businesses as “cautiously optimistic” about the upcoming season. That is countered by uncertainty because of late cancellations and postponements of football games in other conferences due to positive COVID-19 tests.
“Until we hear the cannon go off, I don’t know that it’s gonna happen,” Brewer said. “We’re preparing for it — everyone has their hiring in place and is getting their inventory ready — but I don’t know that anyone believes 100% that it’s going to happen until it does. And then, what happens after the first game, I don’t know. But we rely so much on football over the years to fill our hotels and the bars and restaurants during this time — and other ancillary type of businesses that rely on those businesses.”
“At 25% capacity, I don’t think we really know what kind of effect that will have,” Brewer said. “It’s definitely not going to be what we’re used to, and it won’t be what people budgeted for at the beginning of the year.”
Linda Harvell, College Station Mayor Pro Tem and co-chair of BCS Operation Restart, said Saturday that many of the community’s businesses have seen a boost from the start of the fall semester that has them feeling more hopeful.
“Football season is still very shaky, from what I’m hearing from the hotels and business owners around town,” Harvell said, noting the decreased stadium capacity and the unknown effects that may have. “Football weekends have always had a significant financial boost to our economy, and we really don’t know right now what to expect. The community really needs this business, if it can be done safely.”
A&M is also set to host Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi and LSU at Kyle Field during the shortened season, two fewer home games than last year. The Southeastern Conference said in August that host schools must provide visiting schools a minimum of 500 tickets unless a different figure is mutually agreed upon.
The uncertainty over the number of opposing team fans is another big question mark, according to Spencer Clements, principal of the Traditions/Lake Walk/ATLAS master-planned area, which includes the 176-room Stella Hotel. In a normal year, Clements said, visiting SEC teams such as Alabama or LSU bring the most visitors and the greatest financial impact. That typically leads to rate compression, Clements said, with rates rising as hotel rooms fill up.
“We know, with the current capacity constraints, we’re not going to see the same influx of visitors, and we’re not going to have the same retail and restaurant sales throughout the market,” Clements said.
“Our best forecast at the moment is that we may do just over half the room revenue with these five games that we did in seven games last year,” Clements said. “That’s a big hit.”
‘Grateful for whatever we can get here’
Two economists from Texas A&M’s Private Enterprise Research Center spoke with The Eagle last week to help quantify the economic impact of football and closely connected events, and also provide insight into how the ongoing pandemic has impacted the local economy.
PERC Executive Director Dennis Jansen and Executive Associate Director Andy Rettenmaier said that locally in 2019, monthly taxable sales from September through November averaged
$361 million, higher than the yearlong monthly average of $348 million. Monthly hotel receipts in the fall averaged $11 million, well above the $9.3 million monthly average.
The economists explained that the average monthly employment in leisure and hospitality was 18,100 people from September through November, up not only from the summer month average of 17,300, but also the February-April average of 17,600, when A&M and Blinn College are in session.
Rettenmaier said the hospitality and leisure industry made up 6.6% of all local earnings in Bryan-College Station in 2019, which is higher than the statewide figure of 4.2%. The local food services industry averaged $25 million per month from September through November 2019, up from the February-April monthly average of $22.3 million.
Jansen pointed out that prior to the pandemic — which pushed the local unemployment rate from 2.7% at the start of the year to 9.3% in April, before rebounding to 5.9% as of the end of June — the Bryan-College Station economy was improving over 2019 numbers, based on January and February figures. As an example, the 250-room Doug Pitcock ’49 Texas A&M Hotel and Conference Center posted its second-best fiscal month in February since its August 2018 opening, general manager Greg Stafford said.
Stafford said Wednesday that the hotel temporarily closed in the spring after it lost more than 90% of its business. It is heavily reliant on group business, he said, much of which has been pushed into 2021. On the plus side, 70% of lost group business has been rebooked for the future, Stafford said, with new business coming in as well.
In 2019, the hotel was sold out weeks in advance for football weekends. This year, Stafford said, uncertainty has meant slower sales, though things have slowly but steadily improved since June.
During the season, according to Rettenmaier and Jansen, average monthly hotel receipts were $1.7 million higher than the annual monthly average, and $1.1 million higher than the March-May average. The months of September, October and November account for 30% of total annual receipts in Bryan-College Station.
“This tourism community depends mightily on football and on some other university special events,” Stafford said. “It’s not a great situation for hotels, but it’s still a lot better than not having football. We’re grateful for whatever we can get here. We’re a small enough community that if you put 25,000 people in that stadium … then it’ll still have a pretty positive effect on hotels.”
‘We’re all playing this waiting game’
Abigail Noel, marketing coordinator for the Downtown Bryan Association, said it isn’t yet clear whether the game day shuttle that runs from Downtown Bryan to near Kyle Field will continue in 2020. In recent years, she said, that shuttle has provided steadily increasing foot traffic in Bryan before and after games. Regardless, Noel said the association will market on behalf of Downtown Bryan’s businesses as places to visit during the season.
“Most of our businesses are hopeful that there will be some attendees, and of course the whole community is hopeful for that,” Noel said. “We’re all playing this waiting game to figure out what that’ll look like, and then we can create the messaging to capture attendees if they allow them at the game. … And if they don’t allow fans, then we’ll promote those restaurants and safe environments to enjoy the games on TV, have some food and then stroll around downtown.”
Messina Hof Winery CEO and head winemaker Paul Bonarrigo said Thursday that the toughest part of the past six months was the “second shutdown,” when Gov. Greg Abbott scaled back restaurant capacities to 50% and shut down bars in late June after a statewide surge in cases. The winery’s 11-room bed and breakfast closed in March and reopened in late July. Those rooms would be booked well in advance in a normal fall, he said, but there are still openings this year.
Bonarrigo said Messina Hof, normally a tourist destination, has not been able to have winery tours and has had to operate like a restaurant with curbside options, delivery and shipping.
“During football season, a good portion of our traffic are people who are in town for football or other A&M-related events,” Bonarrigo said. “Unless we are able to do tourism activities, football season will not have a significant impact on us one way or the other.”
‘We need something to bring us together’
On Thursday afternoon, three local restaurant owners — Belender Wells of Fargo’s Pit BBQ; Wade Beckman, co-owner of Shipwreck Grill, Amico Nave Ristorante and 3rd on Main; and Aaron Curs of Proudest Monkey and All The King’s Men — met in the Fargo’s dining area for an interview. They discussed the ups and downs of the past six months and the outlook for the fall and beyond.
All three spoke about the creativity that business owners have had to employ to adapt to the pandemic, both with safety precautions and with strategies to generate income.
“Our busy days are half of what a busy day used to be,” Curs said, “but we’ve taken the approach that we’re going to come out of this thing stronger, no matter what.” He added that he hoped local restaurants would get “a sprinkle of people” seeking takeout food on their way out of town on game weekends.
Wells estimated the negative impact to be 50% of normal business revenue. “The positive is that customers that are loyal to you and honestly hoping you make it — there’s been a lot of support and over-tipping,” she said. “All that support makes your day.”
Beckman said that the as-yet-undetermined decisions on football tailgating is another topic that will have immense implications for businesses this fall.
“For Aggie football, how many of those tickets are going to go to locals, how many people are actually going to come in, how many people will eat out, and are there people who come in town and don’t have tickets but just want to be here?” Beckman said.
“It’s so up in the air,” Wells said. “The fall and the spring are our big times of year. In football season, the line will usually be to that wall and outside.” The trio laughed as Wells recounted a Saturday last month with long lines at Fargo’s, and said she felt out of practice seeing so many customers for the first time in awhile.
“I just have to stay humble and thankful,” Wells said. “Thankful that we’re here.”
Clements from Traditions/Lake Walk noted the vast cultural importance of A&M football to the community, praising the young men who play the sport, and calling football “more than just a game.”
“It’s a way of bringing people together and creating memories and creating an economy — and celebrating our school and all the things that bring us together,” Clements said. “Of all the times that we need something to bring us together, I think now is certainly one of those times. I’m appreciative of the fact that even at a reduced capacity, Aggies are going to get the chance to come together as Aggies.”
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.