2024 kicked off with a milestone some Michiganders had never experienced in their lifetime, and most only once or twice: The Detroit Lions are headed to the NFC Championship Game.
Detroit’s epic underdog of an NFL team, which hasn't won a playoff game in 32 years or a division title in 32, ended the historic slump with a thrilling win over the Los Angeles Rams on January 14. The next weekend, the Lions took down the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a second playoff victory, leaping one game closer to the Super Bowl. After cheering the Lions through thick and mostly thin, blue-jerseyed fans are now flooding Ford Field, booking hotels, packing bars, and electrifying downtown Detroit.
“It has been awesome,” says Tim Tharp, who owns Grand Trunk Pub and Checker Bar. “In terms of sales, in terms of the feel-good factor. You know, it’s just great to see Detroiters pumped up. And not just the fans, but the businesses. It’s just exciting to see the positivity and the vibrancy downtown.”
Both playoff games were held at Ford Field, meaning Detroiters experienced the back-to-back victories at home and Detroit businesses reaped the rewards. Economists believe the two weekends sparked a local economic boost of nearly $50 million, which is a high point for an already revitalizing season for Detroit’s hospitality scene.
Tharp believes his businesses have “easily” seen a 30% uptick in sales, even on non-game days, in a needed financial first-down for businesses. Still recovering from the pandemic, Detroit’s restaurants and hotels have since struggled significantly with staffing issues, low turnout in the winter months, and other crippling challenges.
“This gives us hope,” Tharp says of the city’s new energy.
While NFL games can usually drum up $12-25 million in revenue for the host city’s businesses, it goes without saying: the more touchdowns the team scores, the more green ones the businesses score. Tharp explains that fans tend to head home after a loss; but after a rousing victory, people feel like hitting the town and celebrating.
But Tharp has noticed another kind of revival downtown. More out-of-town guests and tourists have flocked to Detroit this football season, some to see the Lions play and others just to experience the city. “It has the momentum, that Detroit pride that is so good, and important, and fierce,” he says.
Claude Molinari, President & CEO of Visit Detroit, said it’s also been a record year for hotels, partly because of that excitement. “The energy around the resurgent Lions team perfectly matched the energy around our resurgent city, with increased hotel occupancy every weekend there was a home game,” he said.
Comparing downtown occupancy rates on home game dates to Lions-less weekends, Visit Detroit noted higher booking rates on nights with home games, with 9.6% more on Sundays with a home game and 9.3% more on Saturdays with a home game. There’s not enough data yet to determine the long-term impact, and those numbers don't include playoff games, but so far, Visit Detroit estimates that the Lions games garnered tens of millions in extra revenue for Detroit hotels and other businesses.
Lately, travelers nationwide have been spurred by “once-in-a-lifetime" experiences. Hotels have seen overwhelming demand, for instance, wherever Taylor Swift schedules her sweeping “Eras Tour” concert. Ann Arbor bars were packed on January 8 when the undefeated University of Michigan football team clinched the national championship, a first since 1997. This April, with a solar eclipse predicted to cross the Midwest and the South, hotels in the eclipse's path are already seeing bookings pile up.
For Detroit, an exhilarating Lions comeback, followed by a turn to host the NFL Draft, is one of those pinnacle experiences that inspires locals and out-of-towners to discover the destination of Detroit. “That brings us national attention,” Tharp says. “That puts Detroit in a positive, fun spotlight that it deserves.”
This spring, hundreds of thousands of football fans are expected to descend upon Detroit for the 2024 NFL Draft, checking into hotels and checking out the best restaurants in town. In fact, some Detroit leaders predict the NFL Draft will generate an economic windfall comparable to that of a Super Bowl.
It has the momentum, that Detroit pride that is so good, and important, and fierce. - Tim Tharp
Tharp admits the scale of traffic is a “double-edged sword” for restaurants, but he’s primed for a chance to show off Detroit’s hospitality scene at its finest. “We are sprucing up every inch of real estate that we can,” he says. “This creates a reason and a purpose for restaurants and hotels and downtown businesses to put their best foot forward.”
In perspective, Kansas City hosted the NFL Draft last year after the Chiefs won the Super Bowl, and the three-day festivities generated around $109 million for the city, according to the Kansas City’s leading economic development organization. Nearly 80% of those dollars went to Kansas City’s hotels and restaurants.
To sustain Detroit’s cultural and economic comeback, some say it’s crucial to promote large-scale events, like the NFL Draft as well as the Auto Show, the Grand Prix, concerts, athletic competitions, and even smaller attractions.
“The important lesson is that supporting events is good for business and should be a critical part of the State’s efforts to grow Michigan,” says Molinari, who suggested that a Large Special Events fund could infuse the state’s economy with billions of extra dollars and "help attract and retain talent throughout Michigan.”
Tharp believes events like this are especially vital for Detroit’s hard-pressed hotels and restaurants, which depend on returning guests and a steady influx of tourists to stay open. Events provide the buzz and incentive to draw people downtown, he says, getting a new generation of travelers excited about visiting Detroit.
"People need the spark."