Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Biker rally brings noise and dollars to Austin

Gary Dinges
gdinges@statesman.com

When 40,000-plus bikers begin rumbling into Austin today for the Republic of Texas Biker Rally, the crew at Cindy's Gone Hog Wild will just barely be ready with burgers and beer.

A favorite of bikers year-round, the bar on Texas 71 East in Cedar Creek burned to the ground Christmas Day. After months of back-and-forth with insurance adjusters, reconstruction started just five weeks ago.

"We've been heads down, butts up pretty much nonstop," said Mike Herman, who co-owns the bar with his wife, Cindy.

Though the building with a bright red metal roof isn't quite done, the patio out back is ready to go. That's where the Hermans will greet a couple thousand bikers over the course of the weekend.

Customers — many of them out-of-towners — will down as many as 10,000 beers and chow on close to 3,000 burgers, the Hermans say. It is, by far, the busiest time of the year at Cindy's.

"This is our Christmas," Mike Herman said.

The annual rally at the Travis County Exposition Center on Decker Lane pumps an estimated $36 million into the Austin economy, according to the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau. The event runs today through Sunday and features music performances — including the Doobie Brothers and Eddie Money — a vintage bike showcase and stunt exhibition, as well as a Friday night parade down Congress Avenue.

This year, the impact could be bigger than ever. Pre-registration is trending 8 percent higher than 2010, according to organizers.

Many attendees camp on site, but hotel managers say reservations for 2011 started coming in almost as soon as the 2010 rally wrapped up. That increased demand makes prices jump everywhere from roadside inns to luxury downtown hotels, with nightly rates at some places more than double the norm.

At Austin's Lonestar Inn on U.S. 290 East near Interstate 35, employees say business during the rally seems to get better each year.

"It's been steadily increasing," said desk clerk Maya Patel. "Last year, business was double the year before."

The motel offers bikers lots of extras, including a bike wash area, cold drinks and extended pool hours.

"We have people come in from all across the country," Patel said, "and we want to make a good impression on them so they'll come back to our hotel and back to Austin."

Downtown, the upscale Four Seasons also benefits from the rally.

"There's definitely a luxury segment within the biker population," general manager Rob Hagelberg said. "We get some of that, and we take good care of them."

At the W Austin Hotel, valets will have special wristbands for bikers, and a full-time garage attendant will be on hand this weekend to oversee motorcycle self-parking, enabling bikers to come and go as they please.

"The annual ROT Rally is a fantastic opportunity to showcase our city to tens of thousands, and W Austin is thrilled to welcome them here," general manager Drew McQuade said.

Folks who waited until the last minute to book a hotel room will have a tough time finding space in Austin — or anywhere else in Central Texas — this weekend.

Rally officials say an estimated 26,000 rooms were already booked as of late May, everywhere from far South Austin to the Arboretum and Domain in North Austin, and even Round Rock, which is more than 20 miles from the expo center. Figures from Smith Travel Research show that the Austin metro area has about 29,500 hotel rooms.

In June 2010, Smith Travel reports that area hotels were 67.2 percent full, with occupancy approaching 100 percent on the rally weekend.

Hotels won't be the only businesses to see a substantial bump in revenue.

"It just gets crazy," said Zach Kasey, an employee at JD's Conoco gas station next to the expo center.

Beer sales more than double, he says. More gas is purchased, and snacks fly off the shelves. Extra staffers are brought in to handle the crowds.

"As long as it doesn't rain, I'm hoping for a very, very good weekend," Kasey said.

At Poodie's Hilltop Bar and Grill on Texas 71 West in Spicewood, business should be up about 30 percent over a typical weekend.

"We get a lot of riders who'll stop in for a bit before heading out to the Hill Country," said owner Sharon Burke. "Our regulars still come see us, too."

And, of course, bike shops get a boost.

"We see a noticeable increase in foot traffic, for sure," said Nick Walton, assistant general manager at Ducati Austin, on East Braker Lane near I-35. "There'll be at least 25 percent more people."

The news isn't all good, though. The Velveeta Room, a comedy club on East Sixth Street, is closing Friday and Saturday.

"All the bikes park outside, and it just gets really loud," said manager Dana Smith, "so we defer to Esther's Follies."

Colleen and Jerry Bragg, the rally's organizers, say they never imagined how big it would become.

"It's been pretty phenomenal growth, and we can't really explain it," Jerry Bragg said.

When the ROT Rally started in the mid-1990s, attendance hovered around 5,000. As word spread, the Braggs started seeing increases of 20 to 30 percent for several consecutive years.

"We make it special every year," Colleen Bragg said. "We put a lot of money into this event. We don't skimp."

gdinges@statesman.com; 912-5987