Rising Panthers continue to lift Charlotte tourism

Patrons enjoy tap beer from NoDa Brewing in North End.
Patrons enjoy tap beer from NoDa Brewing in North End.

The Carolina Panthers’ near-perfect record has already been a boon to area businesses, and experts say a playoff game — possibly two — in Charlotte could generate an unprecedented amount of tourism dollars in a month generally not considered to be that busy.

Having the Charlotte skyline in the national spotlight is also all-around good publicity, experts say.

The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority expects more out-of-town fans than usual will make a weekend into the Jan. 17 playoff game, meaning more hotel dollars. During last year’s early January playoff game in Charlotte, uptown hotel revenues were up about 24 percent over a typical day.

But last year’s playoff game isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison of this year’s. At 15-1, the Panthers this year have the best record in the NFL, compared with last year’s 8-8-1 at the time.

“It’s great to have (the Panthers) here all year round, but now they happen to be the best team in the league,” said Tom Murray, chief executive officer of the CRVA.

The CRVA said a more accurate comparison is this year’s prime-time games. On the nights when the Panthers played the Philadelphia Eagles (Oct. 25) and the Indianapolis Colts (Nov. 2), uptown Charlotte hotel revenues were up 40 percent, the CRVA said.

Hotel revenues might paint a clearer picture than hotel occupancy because often hotels are at capacity over the weekends anyway. They can raise room rates if a big event is being held nearby and demand is high.

The Hampton Inn uptown was booked solid soon after the playoff date in Charlotte was set, said sales coordinator Dauntae Harrison. Room rates are up and the staff is being prepped on how to handle the larger volume of guests, she added.

“The prices definitely vary depending on what’s going on in town. There will be a lot of people, and we’re pricing ourselves to that,” Harrison said.

Similarly, the Charlotte Marriott City Center is sold out, with fans comprising a big portion of the reservations, said Crissy Wright, the hotel’s general manager.

“The Panthers playoff game is dynamic on all levels for both short and long term business and an exciting weekend to be in Charlotte,” Wright said.

Sid Smith, executive director of the Charlotte Area Hotel Association, describes a playoff game as a “mini Super Bowl.” It’s single elimination, which adds tension and prompts more visitors and more corporate entertaining. He expects food and beverage revenues will be four times their level on a regular business night.

“The ripple effects through the economy of just having one game — and two would be much better — are really significant,” Smith said.

In Mecklenburg County, tourism and hospitality, a $4.9 billion industry, represents one in every nine jobs, making it the area’s fourth-largest employer, according to figures from the CRVA. A busier weekend means more hours for those local workers, from waitresses to cab drivers, Smith added.

If the Panthers win on Jan. 17, their next game would be the NFC Championship, which would take place in Charlotte on Jan. 24 at 6:40 p.m., televised by Fox.

Out-of-town fans in Charlotte for the weekend will be looking for ways to fill the rest of their weekend, and businesses are gearing up. NoDa Brewing, for example, will be opening early on the playoff game day at noon.

“We anticipate a lot more visitors. This season we’ve seen a huge increase in tap room activity on Friday evening and Saturday from away time visitors,” co-owner Suzie Ford said.

Discovery Place is another tourist go-to. During the Belk Bowl, the museum was packed with nearly 3,000 visitors, twice as many as a normal weekend day and many of whom were from out of town, said spokeswoman Kaitlin Rogers.

“We are expecting to see some larger crowds as visitors plan to be in uptown for the playoffs,” Rogers said. She added that Discovery Place is offering $2 off museum admission for anyone wearing Panthers gear on Jan. 17, when the museum is open from noon until 5 p.m.

And there’s also the tourism boost that comes even from those watching the game from home. That Charlotte is hosting the game means viewers around the world will get to see the city, a big publicity opportunity that comes with no added cost.

Last year, 31 million viewers watched the Seattle Seahawks beat the Panthers in the NFC divisional playoffs on Jan. 10, making it Fox’s highest-rated and most-watching prime time Saturday NFL playoff game ever and the network’s most-watched Saturday night broadcast in history, according to Sports TV Ratings.

“There are millions of people from all over the world that get to see not just the game, but they get to see Charlotte,” Smith said. “What we end up with is millions and millions of dollars for free public relations and advertising that we would never get.”

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta