April 11, 2013

Columbia businesses feast on the Masters

Columbia’s hotels, restaurants, and caterers are enjoying the long-awaited impact of the end of the recession.

The Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club is a hole-in-one for Columbia’s economy this year as crowds spill out of the town near the Georgia-South Carolina border this week.

Hotels downtown have been booked solid all week, lodging officials say, while local restaurants say they are thriving and Columbia caterers are busy entertaining the Augusta crowds, too.

“This year, with the economy coming out of the recession, and with Tiger Woods being ranked No. 1, we’re seeing a huge increase in the number of people that are traveling to the Masters,” said Steve Graves, general manager of DoubleTree by Hilton at I-20 and Bush River Road in Columbia.

Just 68 miles – about an hour’s drive – from Augusta National, the hotel has been full all week, Graves said. Last year, the hotel sold 150 rooms on the Monday night of Masters week, said Graves, who also is Greater Columbia Hotel & Motel Association chairman. This week, it sold 228 rooms Monday and is fully booked through Sunday, the day the championship is scheduled to end. The hotel’s restaurant, Columbo’s, is serving 150 customers a night as opposed to the typical 50, he said.

“Obviously everybody would like to stay in Augusta, but the prices are sky-high and they have a limited number of rooms,” Graves said. “So, that event pushes occupancy all the way to Columbia. We’re seeing occupancy levels that are right back to where we were prior to the recession.”

Columbia, of course, has a long history of handling overflow Masters crowds.

Some businesses say they host many of the same Masters patrons year after year – some of them choosing the Capital City to avoid congestion in Augusta and to capitalize on other Columbia amenities.

Masters’ week is strong every year for the Blue Marlin restaurant in The Vista, boosting sales about 15 percent over an average week, managers said. This year, given good weather and the promise of an exciting tournament, crowds have packed its patio each night this week.

“It’s been one of our strongest weeks of the year,” said Brian Dukes, Blue Marlin general manager. “I think a lot of it depends on when Tiger (Woods) is playing well – then, more people come out; more people stay, maybe.”

The economy also is a factor.

Graves was general manager of the Columbia Embassy Suites before moving to the Hilton a few years ago. He said he saw a significant drop-off of Masters customers during the worst of the recession in 2009 and beyond. But customer traffic during the event has been building back up in recent years and has rebounded along with the economy, he said.

“I am 25 percent or more ahead for this Masters week this year than I was last year. It’s huge,” Graves said – for everybody.

Other Columbia area hotel and motel managers have told Graves they also are experiencing increased demand this year, he said. Of about 45 hotels in Columbia, Graves said 38 of them are being impacted by higher Masters week demand.

The DoubleTree has guests from all the European countries, Graves said, and a very large contingency of guests from England this year. All those guests don’t go to Augusta National every day, he said, and they get directed downtown and to the Vista’s entertainment areas at night.

“They’re going out to local restaurants; they’re going to local golf courses and local driving ranges. They’re renting golf clubs. They love golf,” Graves said.

Many of Blue Marlin’s Masters customers come to Columbia from big cities and welcome the lower costs of food, lodging and entertainment, Dukes said.

Blue Marlin and other Columbia-area restaurants also benefit by catering at the annual spring golf mega-event.

Henry Griffin, chef and co-owner of The Kingsman restaurant in Cayce, is spending this Masters Week in Augusta cooking for and serving hundreds of corporate guests, like he has for the past 16 years.

The Irmo native is working with six other Columbia chefs in similar capacities at corporate-sponsored houses in Augusta at this year’s Masters, he said.

Griffin started out stationed at an omelet station in a house for 90 clients in Augusta in 1996, he said. Griffin worked his way up to house chef at the rented corporate residence he now operates each year in Columbia County, Ga.’s West Lake Country Club, where he prepares and serves three meals daily for golf guests – breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“This year we have 70 people (clients),” Griffin said, “and this is top-of-the-ladder for me. We have dinner and a show here every night.”

Griffin and his 14-person crew – which includes another chef, dishwashers, servers, bartenders and a hostess – begin their day at 4 a.m. and wind things up at 11 p.m., for seven days.

“This is work, work, work and more work, but it’s top-notch and it’s fun. I get to cook a lot of food that I don’t get to handle every day,” Griffin said.

“They want the best fish, the best lobster, the best steak. But they’re not real flashy. They want people to enjoy everything and have a good time. And if they need a certain type of hot sauce or a certain type of milk, we go out and get it for them.”

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