It has been business as usual for Applebee's in the Heights, which is the exact opposite of what owner Pat Ryan was hoping for.

This weekend is traditionally the busiest time for the Heights restaurant — but there is usually a state wrestling tournament in town.

Instead, the all-class tournament was reopened for bid and awarded to other cities after June 2010's tornado ripped through the Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark.

The Class AA tournament starts today at C.M. Russell High School in Great Falls, while the Class A tournament is being held at the Butte Civic Center and the Class B-C competition is at Hamilton High School. A total of 710 athletes from across the state will compete in the three tournaments.

Mark Beckman, executive director of the Montana High School Association, said the tournament has already been awarded to MetraPark for 2012.

"It will be great to see the renovations," Beckman said. "From what it sounds like, there is going to be some very nice things done in regard to acoustics and different kinds of things like that. It's a great facility for the events that will be held there."

The tournament loss leaves a hole in revenue for Billings businesses, especially those closer to MetraPark that depend on the big event to get them through the slow season.

"It goes from one of the top business weeks we have all year to just February, which is always one of the slowest months out of the year for us," Ryan said. "This will just be an average, slow week, whereas we always count on the wrestling week to help get us through the winter."

Ryan said that lost business is hard to make up, given the restaurant's location.

"The other one is in more of a retail-heavy area with King Avenue and 24th Street, but for the Heights, the business level is pretty dependent on what is going on across the street at the Metra," Ryan said.

Hotels also feel the pinch. Shelli Mann at the Boothill Inn and Suites, 242 E. Airport Road, said the motel is only half full this week.

This time last year there wasn't a room available, but Mann is doing her best to look ahead and try to make up for the loss.

"We are already full for the Women of Faith event and the phones have been very busy for Elton John, so we will be full for both of those events," she said.

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The hotels have also partnered with the Billings Area Chamber of Commerce/Convention and Visitors Bureau, participating in the "Stay and Play" advertising campaign.

The campaign was slated to start in the spring. With the absence of revenue, the chamber decided to push it up a few months.

"What I am hearing on the street is that this was a huge wake-up call," said Joan Kronebusch, director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We have not rested on our laurels, but this one caught us off guard — absolutely by surprise."

The campaign launched Feb. 1, with a focus of attracting travelers to stay and enjoy the sites that Billings has to offer by offering special hotel, restaurant and entertainment packages.

"We cast a little broader net with our campaign," said Kelly McCandless, leisure travel sales manager with the chamber. "We reached into the entirety of Montana, Northern and Central Wyoming, the western part of the Dakotas and southern Alberta, Canada."

McCandless said the website visitbillings.com has already received a lot of traffic in its first weeks.

"Because of losing the wrestling tournament, we thought this would be a great time to spark some interest in Billings," McCandless said.

Business at the Best Western Kelly Inn & Suites, 4915 Southgate Drive, surprisingly has been on the increase, despite the loss of the tournament.

"Our year started out better than 2010," said Joyce Bratland, co-manager. "The economy has recovered a little bit, I just see more movement out there and I don't even know what to put a finger on to say it is exactly."

Bratland said they have been getting overflow reservations for conferences being held at neighboring hotels, attracting corporate customers.

"I still think we will be down some numbers, that is such a big tournament and it draws so many people," Bratland said. "I'm always carefully optimistic, and that is what I am about this year. It's still going to impact, we know those are big weekends."


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