Originally created 01/30/05

Georgia's islands draw VIP guests for Super Bowl



JEKYLL ISLAND, Ga. - Stephanie Noble still gets dozens of calls each day for ocean-side condos she rented out months ago, and she's busy preparing VIP gift baskets with tickets for free rounds of golf and bottles of champagne.

Come the first weekend in February, coastal Georgia's seasonal winter tourist slump will be blown away by the Super Bowl.

"This February, it's going to break a record for us," says Ms. Noble, the sales director of the Villas By The Sea Resort on Jekyll Island. "And it'll give us good exposure. Of course, we always love that."

The National Football League's showcase game Feb. 6 will be held 60 miles to the south, across the Georgia-Florida state line in Jacksonville. But the commute hasn't dampened demand from ticket-holding corporate executives seeking posh surroundings and privacy for their Super Bowl festivities.

VIPs have booked resorts and hotels throughout the Georgia coastline, from St. Marys at the Florida line to Savannah 100 miles north. Just don't ask who's on the guest list.

"We're 100 percent occupied, and 100 percent of it is because they're here to go to the Super Bowl," said Kyle Jones, a spokeswoman for the Lodge and Cloister resorts on Sea Island. "I can't talk about who they are. But we have a few A-list celebrities, some corporate leaders."

With their limited access from the mainland, Georgia's barrier islands have served as secluded getaways for the rich and famous for more than a century. During the Super Bowl, they will give well-heeled fans plenty of buffer from the crowds in jam-packed Jacksonville.

"A lot of these people want a private, low-key place to stay," Mr. Jones said. "We're off the beaten path, not in the middle of the all the hubbub of Jacksonville."

It's no secret that President Bush chose Georgia's cloistered Sea Island to hold last summer's G-8 Summit of world leaders. Known past guests of the island's resorts include actor John Travolta and tennis star Anna Kournikova.

The Jekyll Island Club, now a public hotel fronted by an immaculately manicured croquet course, was founded in the 1880s as a winter escape by wealthy industrialists such as William Rockefeller.

Pre-game party planners would have a hard time finding a more private spot than the Greyfield Inn on Cumberland Island. The late John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette held their 1996 wedding reception at the 16-room bed-and-breakfast, accessible to the mainland only by boat.

Greyfield general manager Mary Ferguson would say only that a private group with Super Bowl tickets had booked the inn, despite a required ferry trip to the game.

"Most people coming would not be interested in that," she said.

Jacksonville, the smallest city ever to hold a Super Bowl, lacks the hotel space needed to house the 100,000 expected fans. The north Florida city is even relying on cruise ships to provide 3,000 extra rooms.

The Georgia Division of Tourism did not have an estimate for how many in-state rooms have been booked for the game. Some corporate ticketholders are staying as far north as Savannah, nearly 140 miles from the Super Bowl venue of Alltel Stadium, according to the city's Convention and Visitor Bureau.

That means southeast Georgia can expect significant Super Bowl spillover on game weekend and a slice of its anticipated $181 million economic impact, said Jeffrey Humphreys, an economic forecaster at the University of Georgia.

"Most of the attendees aren't normal fans, they're corporate people," Mr. Humphreys said. "They spend heavily, heavier than their high incomes would suggest, because they have company credit cards and they're wining and dining customers."

Not everybody staying on the Georgia coast on game weekend is expected to be traveling on a fat expense account. Hotels and tourism officials say calls from fans have picked up since last weekend, when the match-up was set.

Local tourism officials want to make sure those fans have a good time, and spend plenty having it, even if they don't manage to scrounge tickets.