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Coming Soon to Campus: The $100,000 Hotel Room

Texas A&M is charging alums six figures for the right to book a hotel room next to the football stadium, as universities look for extra perks to market for wealthy donors

By Laine Higgins / WALL STREET JOURNAL

Nov. 6, 2017

Texas A&M University on Tuesday will hold a lottery in which the winners walk away with an unusual—and very expensive—prize: The right to pay $100,000 for a hotel reservation.

The six-figure price tag is largely based on a single amenity: The yet-to-be-built hotel will sit across the street—96 feet away, to be exact—from Kyle Field, where the Aggie football team plays six or seven games each year.

Sound absurd? Thus far more than 750 Texas A&M alumni have put up $5,000 apiece just to participate in the lottery. Less than a third of them will win, though the deposits are refundable. For sleeping quarters on the hotel’s top floor—13 suites and 36 standard rooms—the deposit was $10,000. Those reservations, where the starting point for bids ranges from $125,000 to $475,000, will be auctioned off on Thursday.




The clamor for the “guaranteed room options,” as they are called, is possibly the apogee of college efforts to wring extra revenue from well-heeled alumni on football game days. Already, most major universities require mandatory donations, usually thousands of dollars, for fans wanting premium season tickets. Some schools sell licenses for primo parking spaces.

“These folks are working every single angle that they can possibly think of to squeeze more juice out of the athletic machine,” says John Gerdy, a former associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference and author of several books on collegiate athletic reform. “On one hand, it’s brilliant.”

The guaranteed room options, or GROs, work much like the personal seat licenses now offered by many professional sports teams—only for hotel rooms rather than season tickets. At A&M, the holders will make a one-time, tax-deductible $100,000 donation to the university in exchange for the right to reserve a specific room on any day for the next 10 years. They also get a plaque engraved with their names on the door.


The hotel and conference center, scheduled to be ready for the 2018 home opener against Northwestern State, will include two penthouses, 11 luxury suites, and 237 standard rooms, according to school officials. Texas A&M this year is a disappointing 5-4, leading to speculation that coach Kevin Sumlin may not be on the sideline in 2018.

The project aims to address an issue common to college towns around the country: the scarcity of hotel rooms on football game days. It is routine for room rates to triple or quadruple on football weekends at many schools. In College Station, a city of around 100,000 residents about a 90-minute drive from Houston, the problem became even more acute after the university renovated Kyle Field to raise the capacity to 102,733, starting in 2016. It is the largest stadium in the SEC and the third-largest in the country.

Last weekend, when the Aggies hosted Auburn, a room at the upscale George Hotel in College Station was going for $409. A Hampton Inn had rooms for $299.


The Aggies took inspiration for the hotel from rival LSU, whose Cook Hotel started offering alumni lifetime rights to reserve rooms at price points of $25,000, $50,000 or $100,000 when it opened in 2011. After Texas A&M announced the details of its program, LSU doubled the cost and shortened its license from perpetuity to 10 years, says John Grubb, Cook Hotel’s vice president of hotel and conference operations.


A handful of other schools within the Southeastern Conference offer similar perks for donors at campus-affiliated hotels, including Alabama and Ole Miss.

“In college sports, it’s kind of an arms race,” says Phillip Ray, A&M’s vice chancellor of business affairs.

The price tag at Texas A&M sets its program apart. The average yearly cost of an Aggie GRO will exceed that of every luxury suite in a college football stadium and every personal seat license in the NFL. Almost 200 miles north, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, the Dallas Cowboys charge $262,500 for a 30-year license on front-row seats at the 50-yard line.

To hear Jack Lafield tell it, the project came about partly at his instigation. The Dallas oilman, a 1972 A&M graduate and current chairman of Caiman Energy, said he complained to Texas A&M chancellor John Sharp on a hunting trip several years ago how difficult it was to find hotel rooms on football game days, especially since kickoff times often fluctuate based on television schedules. That makes it difficult to plan trips in advance. Lafield told Sharp he’d be willing to pay good money to solve that hassle.

“The bottom line is, he called me a few years back and said, ‘Remember that idea? I think we’re gonna go ahead and build one on campus,” Lafield recalls. “I said, ‘Count me in!’”

Lafield, who already put down the $5,000 deposit, said he is now pressuring the university to make the facility dog-friendly, as his wife likes to bring their miniature labradoodle, Camo, on game days.


If all the options sell as expected, the GRO program will raise more than $28.5 million for Texas A&M, adding to the windfall already generated by the football program. In the 2015-16 fiscal year, for example, Texas A&M raised $38.5 million from season ticket donations at Kyle Field. That figure almost reached the $42.2 million raised from traditional ticket sales for all of the university’s sports teams.

Texas A&M next plans to borrow another business tactic from professional sports: selling the naming rights. Though the school says several established hoteliers, including Marriott and Hilton, pitched to operate the hotel-conference center, A&M decided to hold on to it in hopes of enticing a corporation — possibly one owned by an alum—to bid for the naming rights.

“We think the naming right is worth north of $20 million,” says Ray.


Sharp says revenue generated by the hotel-conference center will be distributed elsewhere around campus, at the discretion of Texas A&M President Michael Young.

“Athletics is pretty well funded with its own seat licenses — they’re not poor boys,” says Sharp.

Dr. David Ridpath, a professor of sports administration at Ohio University who studies intercollegiate athletics, said around the country there is a growing gap between the haves and have-nots on game days. He said, only partly kidding, that he could envision a day when wealthy fans will be able to purchase licenses on bathroom stalls.

“We’re really out-pricing the fan,” Ridpath says.

Lafield, though, says raising money this way is better than A&M issuing debt of some kind. And at the end of the day, he believes, the hotel will be another point of pride for all Aggies.

“You like to see it and your school be number one,” he says.
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