Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Wrestling provides economic kick for area


Professional wrestler Randy Orton was getting ready to pound Triple H with a sledgehammer during a recent match when hisfoe’s wife stepped into the ring. In a flash, Orton head-dropped the woman to the mat and then kissed her, while Triple H, handcuffed to the ropes, had to watch.

It’s the type of drama that keeps millions of World Wrestling Entertainment fans hooked and will be on full display at WrestleMania 25 and surrounding events in Houston starting today.

Houstonians who don’t follow wrestling might enjoy another story line: WWE fans pouring in for WrestleMania Week could bring tens of millions of dollars to the city.

Last year’s WrestleMania pumped more than $50 million into the Orlando-area economy. While it is uncertain whether Houston will fare as well, WrestleMania will certainly provide a boost to the city, said Greg Ortale, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“It couldn’t come at a better time,” Ortale said. “The hotel industry has been in free fall” as the recession causes corporations to cut back on travel.

“If we don’t equal what it did for Orlando, we’ll come very close,” he said. Many people don’t realize that WrestleMania is on the scale of a Major League Baseball or NBA All-Star game, said John Saboor, WWE’s senior vice president of special events.

The main event Sunday at Reliant Stadium is expected to draw 70,000 fans.

John Keeling, senior vice president of PKF Consulting, a hotel consulting firm, doesn’t believe Houston’s economic benefit will be equal to Orlando’s.

Orlando is more of a tourist destination, he noted. Also, the U.S. is in a recession and attending WrestleMania is “really discretionary.”

Saboor disagreed, noting that many die-hard WWE fans make WrestleMania their one vacation of the year.

Houston actually has an advantage over Orlando in that it’s more centrally located, allowing more people to drive to the event, he said.

When WrestleMania came to Houston in 2001, it set an attendance record for the Astrodome.

The economic impact for Houston that year was more than $13 million, according to the University of Houston Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management. There were fewer WrestleMania events in 2001 than there are now, Saboor noted.

WrestleMania is welcome news for Houston hotels, Keeling said. April is typically prime convention time, he said, “but 2009 has been an off-convention year.”

The downtown Hyatt Regency Houston, WrestleMania’s official fan headquarters hotel, has booked about 800 of its 977 rooms for wrestling fans who have come from as far as China, said Stan Skadal, the hotel’s senior director of sales and marketing.

Many will stay from Thursday until Monday, he said.

Houston is in serious contention to host another WrestleMania Week sometime between 2011 and 2014, Saboor said.

At a City Hall news conference Tuesday, Mayor Bill White proclaimed the next several days as “WrestleMania Week” in Houston.

White, who typically holds news conferences with national leaders, scientists and Fortune 500 CEOs, was this time joined by WWE divas and superstars including masked man Rey Mysterio and black-clad CM Punk.

White, in a dark suit and red tie, addressed an audience made up mostly of screaming wrestling fans.

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