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Hotels lure marathoners with bagels, ice packs

With more people taking up marathon running, there's another race going on—among hotels that want runners' business.

Hotels have begun adding more amenities to attract guests in town for a marathon, such as pre-run pasta dinners, shuttles to the starting line and post-race bags of ice.

Last fall, Westin Hotels & Resorts hired a "running concierge" to provide on-site expertise for guests participating in the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon series, and launched a guest package with perks including expedited race bib pickup and late race-day checkout. Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants began rolling out a juicing menu this year, including beet juice, which runners hail for improving endurance.

"When a runner checks into a hotel, it's no different than a bride checking in for her wedding weekend," said Christopher Heuisler, Westin's RunWestin concierge. "Runners have trained for months for this event. Our job is to acknowledge that."

Runners cross the finish line at the 2013 New York City Marathon.
Stan Honda | AFP | Getty Images
Runners cross the finish line at the 2013 New York City Marathon.

To some extent, hotels already cater to fitness-focused guests. Chains including Westin and Fairmont Hotels & Resorts lend workout gear; some properties have on-site trainers who lead group runs. Hyatt Hotels and Resorts provides mini route cards and digital maps of recommended runs for guests.

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But angling for race participants represents a big opportunity to fill hotel rooms that might otherwise go empty. In 2012, 487,000 people finished a marathon, up 38 percent from 2000, according to Running USA. Half-marathon finishers jumped 285 percent over the same period, to 1.85 million. "We anticipate in 2013 a new record number," said spokesman Ryan Lamppa.

Many of those runners are picking destination races. At the Las Vegas Rock 'n' Roll Marathon last November, 90 percent of the 30,000 participants traveled in, said Dan Cruz, a spokesman for Competitor Group Inc., which owns and operates the marathon series. "They're obviously staying in hotels, renting cars and looking for places to eat," he said.

It helps that runners are, by and large, attractive guests. Nearly 75 percent have household incomes exceeding $75,000, according to Running USA; CGI puts the average at $110,000. "The average runner is affluent, college educated and they have the money to spend at a nice hotel," Lamppa said.

A good impression may help a hotel secure that athlete's business for other destination races as well as his or her leisure travel, said Jason Clampet, co-founder of travel advice site Skift.com. "Those personalized touches are a way for them to be not just another big-box hotel," he said.

U.S. Runners in 2012

Distance
Finishers
Change from '11
5K 6,200,000 17.50%
Half-marathon 1,850,000 14.90%
10K 1,470,000 4%
Marathon* 487,000 -6%
Other races 5,527,000 7.20%
Total: 15,534,000 11.20%
SOURCE: Running USA. *Marathon totals were affected by the cancellation of the NYC Marathon after Hurricane Sandy.

Proximity to a race's starting line can be a big draw; hotels without that advantage usually offer a shuttle. For example, Walt Disney's runDisney registration includes transportation from host resorts for its races, which include the Disney Princess Half Marathon Weekend and the Expedition Everest Challenge.

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Food is another common extra, with hotels fueling runners with pasta specials the night before a race and providing a steady supply of free granola bars and bananas to take as desired. Four Seasons Boston stocks Boston Marathon runners' rooms with complimentary amenities such as coconut water and Gatorade; there's also a special room service menu offered the night before.

Mark Devereux, manager of hotel relations for CGI, said the company also encourages partner hotels to open their coffee shops and breakfast stations early, to accommodate runners looking to eat an hour or two before a race.

That's a huge perk, considering many races start early, said Meridith Daniel, a half-marathoner and co-founder of runners' blog ScootaDoot.com.

Last year, the New Jersey native traveled with friends to Anaheim, Calif., for runDisney's Tinker Bell Half—a race that starts at 5 a.m. They chose to stay at a Best Western near the starting line, which turned out to be a smart pick. "The hotel had bagels beforehand, and extended the usual breakfast so people who were finishing up running could come back and eat," Daniel said.

Westin goes a step further in preparing runners. Heuisler, who has run 26 marathons in 20 states, starts talking to runners within days of them booking a marathon package, offering training tips and answering questions. He arrives a few days early to run part of the course with local runners.

"It lets me give out better advice, very specific advice," he said. "Like a deceptive grade you can't see, but you'll feel. You can't get that by looking at the map."

Runners participate in a marathon in Las Vegas as more hotels cater to the running crowds.
Source: Competitor Group
Runners participate in a marathon in Las Vegas as more hotels cater to the running crowds.

After the finish line, many hotels say they have staff on hand to cheer runners returning to the hotel, offering them towels, cold water and more snacks. Kimpton's Alexis Hotel in Seattle offers an icy foot soak. "We have found over the years that that's what they really want," said a spokeswoman.

Westin's marathon packages offer guests access to a recovery tent at the race, with massage therapy as well as ice packs and late checkout at the hotel.

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But hotels aren't always well-prepared for runners. The most common complaint from runners is noise that disturbs their pre-race rest. Lamppa said it's smart to call ahead and ask if there's any construction going on at the property. "They may not know you're coming in for a marathon and you need your beauty sleep," he said.

Daniel has stayed in Atlantic City, N.J., hotels twice for the April Fools Half, and both times ended up with rowdy guests next door who partied until 5 a.m.—about the time she was getting up for the race. "It's a good race, but the hotel is tricky," she said. "I understand that many people go to AC to party."

So this year, Daniel plans to sleep at home and drive in on race day, instead.

—By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter @Kelligrant and on Google.