No college football entities are hotter than the Alabama Crimson Tide, the defending national champions, and the Aggies of Texas A&M, led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel. These teams will converge in Texas on Sept. 14—a date that's already branded into the brains of Southeastern Conference football fans.
The game has sparked a ticket-buying frenzy, for sure. But it's also having an impact on another, even scarcer commodity: hotel rooms. Nearly three months out, average room rates that night in the College Station area is $245—more than twice the average rate for a Saturday night two weeks later, with no game, according to research by the travel site Kayak.
At the Vineyard Court Designer Suites Hotel in College Station, the Alabama game commands a $200-per-night premium over the hotel's typical $119.99 nightly rate, and the hotel is sold out. "It'll be the biggest weekend we've ever had—definitely, by far," said general manager Amanda Hallum.
While this sort of thing won't come as a surprise to seasoned college football travelers, a Journal analysis of hotel prices in SEC cities suggests that it's a ubiquitous issue. And that the epicenter of rising football hotel rates is the state of Alabama.
At No. 1: Tuscaloosa, home of Alabama's Crimson Tide, where the average room rate jumps 144% on a football game night compared with non-football Saturdays, according to 2012 data compiled by Smith Travel Research.
While they haven't won a National title quite as recently, Alabama's archrivals, Auburn, also seem to do pretty well with out-of-town travelers: The Tigers, 3-9 last season and winless in conference play, nonetheless inspired a 120% spike in hotel rates over non-football Saturdays.
The factors that drive hotel rates in the SEC are pretty simple: The schools in this conference have large stadiums. They have adhesive fan followings. And they have relatively few hotel rooms (about 3,000 in the Tuscaloosa area, 2,600 in Auburn).
Texas A&M, with its SEC-topping enrollment of 50,227, debuted at No. 3 on the hotel price-hike index with football games spurring an 89% rate bump. The Aggies generated excitement by relocating from the Texas-centered Big 12 Conference. The geographic expansion of the SEC is helping hoteliers because longer trips mean overnight stays, said former Texas A&M lineman Hunter Goodwin, also part owner of three College Station-area hotels.
Not only are SEC fans more likely to stay in hotels, they're bunking down longer than Big 12 fans did, said Royce Hickman, President and CEO of the Bryan-College Station Chamber of Commerce. Many of the area's hotels require a two-night minimum stay on football weekends, Hickman said, "and the Florida people said, 'I don't know how that affects me. I'm staying for four days.'"
Surprises toward the bottom of the list included 10th-place LSU, whose football patrons apparently opt to stay in nearby New Orleans – or their RVs. Tennessee showed signs of its faded glory with a price bump of only 20% over non-game weekends. As for Vanderbilt, its measly gameday bump of 5% shows that the No. 1 draw in Nashville is still…Nashville.
A&M is the flavor of the year, and football fans are salivating for Alabama's first trip to College Station as a conference team. But if search data for next season is any indication, the classic matchups still reign. A Tuscaloosa hotel room can be had for an average of $40.91 on Nov. 16, according to Kayak. On Nov. 9, when the Tide hosts rival Louisiana State, that same room would cost $251.09—a premium of 514%.
Taylor Watson, curator at the Paul W. "Bear" Bryant Museum, said he thinks that given Alabama's recent success, a lot of people come to town simply because they want to enter the Tide's exalted orbit. Since the 2008 season, in which Alabama went unbeaten during the regular season, Watson said he's seen a surge in the number of fans arriving for gameday weekends and merely hanging out on campus. "They have no illusions they're going to get tickets," he said.