They’re scheduling extra waiters and getting blocks of rooms ready for an influx of people: Omaha bars, restaurants and hotels are counting on big traffic from basketball fans celebrating a win — or drowning a loss — when the NCAA men’s basketball Midwest Regional semifinals and finals come to the CenturyLink Center on March 23 and 25.
Omaha’s hospitality industry has had almost four years to prepare. The city was selected in late 2014 as one of four cities to host 2018 regional games, in big company along with Atlanta, Los Angeles and Boston. The bracket came out Sunday, and despite dollars flying around in office pools, no one knows yet which teams will win early rounds and advance.
But Omaha will be ready for Duke, Auburn, Kansas, Michigan State or whichever four schools make it to Omaha for the Sweet 16 round. Establishments said they’re used to staffing up for big events like the College World Series, the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting and the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials.
How much of a benefit Omaha might see from the games may depend on which teams end up in the tournament, said Keith Backsen, executive director of Visit Omaha.
Fans of the University of Kansas, for example, may be more willing to travel, but also are close enough that they might not stay for the whole weekend, Backsen said.
The Sweet 16 does have more prestige than the first- and second-round games Omaha has hosted in the past, Backsen said. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will bring more people to town.
“Your numbers automatically drop in terms of teams that are playing, but you elevate in stature, because now you’ve got four of the best teams so far in the tournament,” Backsen said.
Omaha boosters love the national attention that comes from events that are mentioned in news reports and on social media — exposure that costs Omaha nothing in terms of advertising and often is more effective than a tourism campaign.
Todd Murphy, CEO of Universal Information Services, a company that keeps track of media mentions, said the upcoming tournament already has increased Omaha’s prominence in media of all sorts.
In the past 30 days, 829 articles have used “Omaha” along with the words “March Madness,” “NCAA basketball tournament” or “college basketball tournament,” reaching 633 million viewers and readers.
Omaha also has been paired with the words “Sweet 16” or “Elite Eight” in 92 articles, reaching 178 million people, Murphy said.
Tim Darby, general manager of the Magnolia Hotel, said that in the past, first- and second-round games generated a lot of occupied rooms simply from the eight teams playing.
This time around, there will be fewer rooms booked by players and coaches, but more potential to draw basketball fans from across the country.
“Therefore it has a much greater impact,” Darby said. “For that sports fan that can’t make it to the Final Four or championship game, this is the next best thing.”
The Magnolia will play host to a team, although Darby said he’s unable to reveal which one. The hotel is completely booked Wednesday through Sunday, he said.
Each host hotel will have a pep rally of sorts when the teams arrive, and Darby said he planned to outfit his hotel associates with team apparel reflecting the school staying there.
“It’s getting exciting. It’s getting real,” Darby said.
The downtown Hilton Omaha won’t be hosting any teams, but the NCAA already has hung a banner on the hotel’s skywalk welcoming the tournament to Omaha, said Hilton General Manager Gordon Humbert.
The hotel’s staff is used to accommodating large events, considering its proximity to the CenturyLink Center and TD Ameritrade Park, he said.
The hotel is mostly booked, although there are still a few pockets of rooms up for grabs, Humbert said. More reservations are expected once the games are finalized.
The Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, which runs the CenturyLink, already is getting the area ready for crowds.
Kristyna Engdahl said MECA has worked with the city to install concrete barriers along 10th Street for an extra layer of protection in areas that are expected to draw lots of pedestrians. MECA also recently installed walk-through metal detectors at all of CenturyLink’s public entrances.
Hotel Deco General Manager Zak Cook-Isaacson said the hotel is expecting an uptick in bookings for the tournament. The booking window for fans, however, can be rather last-minute, he said.
“As soon as the games get placed, that’s when we start to see the reservations,” Cook-Isaacson said.
Fans will have some new options for hanging out before and after games. There’s a new Marriott Hotel at the Capitol District, a block from the basketball arena, and three new bars in the mixed-use development that will be open by tournament time, said Joe Wells, an owner and general manager of the bars: Annie’s Irish Pub, The Exchange, and Beer Can Alley.
With lots of TVs in all three bars, plus a big outdoor screen and food trucks in the Capitol District plaza, fans without game tickets can still catch every play. And when the CenturyLink empties out, DJs will take over at the bars.
“It’ll be a great late-night spot after the games,” Wells said.
Blatt Beer & Table, a block or two away in north downtown, will stay open late for the Friday night game, and open early Sunday. Extra bars and food stations will serve the crowds, and a limited menu will keep the kitchen moving faster, said Megan Longo of Blatt owner Flagship Restaurant Group.
“Management watches the calendar closely,” to plan for big events, she said. “This is a pretty large event.”
Lots of out-of-towners look for locally owned restaurants, said Sally Kawa, who said Johnny’s Cafe, her old-school South Omaha steakhouse, sees an uptick in business during tournaments.
How much they order depends on what teams make it and where they’re from. “It depends on who gets to Omaha, and if they’re looking for beef,” she said.
Word of mouth and repeat customers will add up to heavy traffic at burger joint Block 16, which after an expansion is no longer a hole in the wall but still sees a line out the door even for the Omaha weekday lunch crowd. It’s packed during the College World Series.
“We absolutely are expecting a crowd and we’ve already done the staff schedule and made sure we staffed heavily for that weekend,” co-owner Jessica Urban said.
She’s dreaming up themed specials, depending on which teams make it to Omaha.
World-Herald staff writers Steve Jordon and Hailey Konnath contributed to this report.