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NCAA tournament providing boost to Indy's hospitality industry after pandemic lows

Hotels benefit from thousands of visitors to city
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Posted at 7:42 AM, Mar 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-23 07:42:18-04

INDIANAPOLIS — To be the host of the Big Dance, the stage needs to be set first. Those hands behind the scenes are Hoosiers, happy to put their hospitality skills back in the game.

The coffee bar is not Jennifer Smith’s usual stomping grounds. Smith has worked with White Lodging for almost 25 years and spent much of her work hours before the pandemic in the restaurant and cocktail bar at the JW Marriott.

“Right now in this business with the way everything is going you just kind of got to do whatever you can do,” said Smith, supervisor at the JW Marriott Starbucks.

Although furloughed in March 2020 with the rest of her team, Smith has learned to be flexible to keep a paycheck. She even left Indianapolis to work at another hotel location with the company in Wyoming.

Now Smith gets to be back home in Indiana and back at the JW Marriott, where up until recently the bars have been closed, so she is using her service skills at the Starbucks coffee bar in the hotel.

“I will go do banquets, I will go downstairs in the restaurant, so just where ever the business is right now especially as we get groups and on the weekends it is busier so long hours on the weekends but it's whatever we can do to get through right now,” Smith said.

The JW Marriott is one of the many hotels that had to close their doors to coronavirus restrictions. The downtown hotel reopened their doors in July.

It has been a slow transition as general manager Phil Ray brings his staff back.

“We are typically about 500-to-600 people that would be working in our hotel on a regular basis,” Ray said. “So we are now about 100, 150, 160 people that are working. Our first goal is to bring back people who have worked with us and we are going to be reaching out and once we exhaust that list then we will be looking out to others and we will be posting for positions.”

His hotel is now part of the “bubble” for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, filling up the hotel’s rooms and Ray’s payroll.

“That is going to be locking us up with some consistent business and keeping our hotels full and allow us to bring even more people back to work,” Ray said. “So we are very excited about that.”

The NCAA tournament and other events coming back downtown is encouraging news for the state’s hospitality industry, after a dramatic downfall in revenue due to pandemic closures.

“We used to have 144,000 people that came from the suburbs of Indianapolis, to the mile square and downtown Indianapolis to work,” Patrick Tamm, president and CEO of Indiana Restaurant and Lodging Association, said. “We may be lucky to have 10,000 people a day.

"We used to also have 50% of our business, its 46-to-53% of our annual revenue for our mile square restaurant in convention goer or sports attendee from three hours away, credit cards provide unbelievable big data, and that business is gone. That other business came from people coming out of their office buildings, office buildings are vacant.”

According to Tamm’s numbers, in 2020 Indiana laid off more than 250,000 people in the hospitality industry. March Madness events in the state should pick those numbers back up.

“We have hotels that laid off in one morning, 300, 1,000-plus people in those respective hotels and haven't had more than 20 people back to work since then,” Tamm said. “Restaurants will see some business from this but primarily this will significantly help the hotels community. Hotels suddenly will be at 80-to-100% occupied. The NCAA has bought out completely hotels, we haven’t that success in quite some time.”

Indiana’s hospitality industry was the second largest employer by industry in the state at 13% of the workforce before the pandemic. After a rough year with many job losses due to COVID-19 closures, with vaccinations rolling out across the country, Tamm forecasts spring events and loosened restrictions will boost business profits.

“We are going to do a great job of hosting the NCAA under unbelievable stress and in a unique environment, we will be fast forwarded in a very positive manner compared to our competitor peer set,” Tamm said.

It is all about the flexibility from everyone across the board, to get Indiana’s hospitality back in business.

“Pretty rough go, for trying to get people down to Indianapolis,” Tamm said. “We still see some positivity downtown, but let me be clear Amanda, that type of business would get general mangers fired, now they celebrate that kind of business.”

Employers, like the JW Marriott downtown, are taking advantage of the opportunity to host the NCAA tourney.

“It will only be a springboard for us as we go forward and hopefully bring more connections and more business to our city,” Ray said.

It will let Hoosier employees serve up what Indiana does best, it’s Hoosier hospitality.

“I am very thankful for still having a job,” Smith said. “I was so happy when we found out that we would have the bubble come. So that's huge for us just business wise, just helping getting people down and just seeing downtown is safe.”

Indiana Restaurant and Lodging Association keeps updated job opportunities and open positions listed on their website: