More than 3,400 athletes are expected this week for the fourth annual ESi Ironman 70.3 Augusta triathlon, but their money is already rolling in.
Hotel reservations are filling up, local restaurants are stocking up and other businesses that serve the competitors are gearing up for the economic boost the race brings to Augusta.
“This is the largest half-Ironman in the world and it is right here in our backyard,” said Brinsley Thigpen, the CEO of the Augusta Sports Council, which helps coordinate the event.
Thigpen said the World Tri-athlon Corp., which owns the event, says more people register for this half-triathlon than for any of the more than 60 other such races in the world.
“That is a lot of hotel rooms, a lot of people eating in restaurants, a lot of people filling up their cars with gas, just a lot of business for this city,” she said.
Thigpen estimates the amount of money spent by visitors during the weekend will top $4 million.
Much of that will go directly to hotels and restaurants where the hordes of triathletes find some rest and “carb up” for Sunday’s grueling competition, which includes a 1.2-mile swim in the Savannah River, a 56-mile bicycle ride into South Carolina and back, and a 13.1-mile footrace through downtown Augusta.
“We have a pasta bar that we start at lunch on Saturday and continue all day and into the evening,” said Darryl Leech, vice president and general manager of Augusta Marriott at the Convention Center, where all event participants will register before the race.
“It is the most people that we will have in one building for the entire year,” said Leech, adding that he expects the hotel to be near capacity for the weekend.
Leech said the crowds are different than what you get during the week of the Masters Tournament.
“This more similar to Indian-apolis 500 or NCAA Final Four (in basketball),” he said. “You have a lot of people converging on a city for a weekend.”
Leech said the athletes bring family and friends, which means the demand for hotel rooms goes up all across the Augusta area.
According to data from Smith Travel Research, which tracks hotel occupancy in cities across the U.S., demand for rooms has increased each year in September since the first Ironman 70.3 race was held in 2009. Last year’s average daily occupancy rate in September was higher than any year since 2007.
The increase in business doesn’t affect just hoteliers. Demand also goes up for the types of things high-endurance athletes consume, such as athletic drinks, energy bar snacks and bananas, said Christian Brander, general manager at Kroger on Washington Road.
Brander said he expects to see a surge of triathletes on the Saturday before the race stocking up on the items that keep them energized.
“Nutrition and energy bars are huge with those guys,” he said. “They will buy those by the case instead of just one or two.”
Brander said he loves to see the participants come in because they are always energetic and bring a positive attitude with them. He said they are easy to recognize.
“They are generally outfitted in athletic gear and they are very fit people,” he said. “When they come into the store, you know where they are going.”
Brett Ardrey, owner of Outspokin Bicycles on Walton Way, said he expects to see a lot of the triathletes walk through his door this weekend, but he will see many of their bikes first.
Ardrey’s business spends the week before the race assembling some of the expensive bikes the participants ship to his store ahead of the race.
“We have them being shipped in from New York, Colorado and California,” he said, somewhat surprised at how the event has grown over the years, since it is no longer the final qualifying race before the championship.
“We are getting a surprisingly large number of return racers,” he said, adding that he has heard nothing but positive reviews from participants about the venues, location and organization of the event.
“We really roll out the red carpet for these people,” he said. “Our business it will be double what we do in a regular week, and it comes in just two days.”