Skift Take

College football is big business, and may hotels and local businesses are totally dependent on its health. Hotels near Penn State are struggling to regain lost ground.

Penn State football fans will start pouring into town Friday for Saturday’s home opener against Eastern Michigan, and if they need a hotel room it’s likely there could plenty of options.

Local hoteliers said, and online travel websites provide some confirmation, that they have vacancies this weekend, as the business of providing lodging to out-of-town guests isn’t as robust for the start of this year compared with last year. And some have dropped, albeit temporarily or on a case-by-case basis, the well-known two-night stay requirement.

Hoteliers attribute the drop-off in business to multiple reasons, and they were quick to rule out that fans were being driven away by the off-field matters that have cast a pall over the football team, such as the way revered coach Joe Paterno was fired and the NCAA sanctions. Instead, the businessmen and woman said factors such as a less-than-stellar opponent or the new mystique having worn off second-year coach Bill O’Brien were at play.

The hoteliers were optimistic that their business would improve if Penn State is successful on the field and the weather doesn’t turn foul.

Websites such as Expedia and Travelocity show many hotels in the State College have rooms available for both nights. Rates, checked Thursday, cost upward of $170 per night to as much as $305 at the Days Inn on South Pugh Street, State College. The Hotwire website, where travelers don’t find out the name of the hotel until after paying, had rates even lower.

At the Best Western off Shiloh Road in College Township, last year’s business for opening weekend was better, said front desk manager Melissa Benner. The hotel sold out last year, and she was optimistic that last-minute customers could grab a room that starts at $199 a night.

As of Wednesday, Benner had 27 vacancies for Friday and 15 for Saturday.

“It could be better, but we’re more than halfway booked,” she said.

The two-night minimum stay was eliminated for this weekend’s game and the games later this month. The game circled on every fan’s calendar, against Michigan on Oct. 12, sold out long ago and had a hefty $459 a night cost, with the required two nights’ stay and payment in advance.

HFL Hotels, which runs the Country Inn and Suites, Comfort Inn and Sleep Inn in State College, had a similar report.

“We aren’t as busy as the first game last year, but we are picking up,” said Mike Szczesny, the company’s director of hotel operations.

Among the three hotels, there were about 70 rooms available as of Wednesday, he said. The next games, against Central Florida and Kent State, appear popular with out-of-towners. Those three hotels don’t have any rooms left.

The two-night minimum stay has been nixed for the Eastern Michigan game, but HFL Hotels offered guests who paid for Friday and Saturday nights a free room on Sunday, he said. The minimum stay will kick in for the rest of weekends that have home games, as well as for Oct. 4-5, which is Penn State’s parents and families open house weekend.

Szczesny said his company offers the two-night minimum stay because consumer demand for it exists.

“At the end of the day when you look at last year, we only had one weekend that sold out both nights,” said Szczesny, adding that business is on track to be better than last year.

At the Autoport on South Atherton Street, co-owner Kathy Punt said last year was busier, too. But she’s attributing the difference in business to fans already having a year of knowing O’Brien, compared with last year, his first year at the helm.

“Last year, we had the curiosity factor that we don’t have this year,” she said.

The Autoport does not have a two-night minimum stay requirement, Punt said, but there’s a difference in rates between stays of one night or two nights.

Rates there are not different from last year, too, Punt said, but they are lower than the 2011 season, which was the first year that a ticket pricing policy took effect that was not popular with fans.

Mike Dawson can be reached at 231-4616. Follow him on Twitter @MikeDawsonCDT. ___

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Tags: crime, pennsylvania, sports

Photo Credit: Penn State coach Bill O'Brien talks to the officials during action against Syracuse at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on Saturday, August 31, 2013. Hotels near the university claim one of the reasons for the softness in occupancy is that the honeymoon with O'Brien has worn off. Nabil K. Mark / Centre Daily Times/MCT