HOOVER, Ala. — The Hyatt Regency Birmingham, otherwise known as the Wynfrey Hotel, is home to one of college football’s most anticipated events of the summer: SEC Media Days, the annual gathering of 14 head coaches, 42 players, dozens of fans, sport admins, and 1,400-plus media members.
The hotel sits in a shopping mall about 20 minutes from downtown Birmingham, the SEC’s headquarters city.
The Wynfrey has hosted this event for the last 17 years.
The event has been around since 1985, and it expanded from three to four days in 2014. It was here from 1988 to 1991 and moved to two other Birmingham locations before moving back in 2001.
So what goes into a hotel hosting one of the sport’s biggest offseason events? A whole lot, actually. It’s one of the Wynfrey’s busiest weeks, both before and during.
“It changes very slightly, and that’s obviously contingent on the SEC and who they want to be here,” said Wynfrey general manager Matt Sterley to SB Nation. Sterley has held the position since spring 2016. “But as far as we’re concerned, that whole week is going to be a sellout for us, because if it’s not media, it is fans that are going to be here, and they’re trying to get in and see their favorite team or player.”
On the first floor, there’s the lobby, packed with fans throughout the week.
Alabama’s day always draws the biggest crowd.
Past the lobby, there’s a long hallway, with tables filled with live radio talent. This area is Radio Row.
The second floor features meeting rooms, including a grand ballroom, for the main interviews that you see on TV. At the back of the ballroom is the SEC Network’s live set.
There are smaller rooms nearby for smaller groups, like internet and radio. Coaches and players make the rounds through it all.
The scene, especially at the start of the week, is buzzing on the first and second floors. This description from 2014 captures it well:
Outside the ballroom on the second floor Monday morning — a short escalator ride from the lobby — will be the usual gaggle of media types bumping into each other between television, internet, and general media rooms. Beyond the doors of the ballroom, where a Dr. Pepper dispenser and plenty of Golden Flakes potato chips await consumption (both are SEC partners), will be ESPN's College Football Live set.
“We have a phrase that we like to bounce around here: that we do big well,” Sterley added. “So we have a lot of very large functions that we can execute, in our eyes, flawlessly.”
Each edition is planned a whole two years in advance.
The Wynfrey is already planning for SEC Media Days in 2018 and 2019. But knowing when the SEC likes to have it — the middle to end of July — makes it simple to block the weeks off.
“It does require, every once in a while, moving a group either a week earlier or a week later to accommodate, because the SEC and ESPN does have all of the space in the building,” Sterley said. “So it’s not that difficult, just because we have had the luxury of having it the last 17 years, and we can assume to a certain extent within a two-week period when it’s going to happen.”
Physical setup begins on the Friday before the event starts.
The Wynfrey is in charge of all the tables, chairs, and podiums.
“From the actual week of events that we started today, that’s the easy part,” Sterley said. “Executing working with the SEC, working with ESPN, making sure the satellite trucks are here, making sure we have enough staff on-hand to execute the luncheon or the breakfast, whatever they are: that’s the easy part.”
The hotel uses a third-party company to set up all of the wiring for Radio Row, and the SEC Network and ESPN set up what they need for themselves.
The hotel has to have working internet for all of the credentialed media members. The Wynfrey had to “completely re-engineer” its WiFi system. In 2010, a malfunctioning system wreaked havoc on the event’s first day.
SEC Associate Commissioner Charles Bloom said the system crashed and there was four times as much bandwidth used Wednesday as there was at last year's event.
The crash prevented media from posting real-time stories on their websites, such as al.com. It prevented the SEC, which streamed media days live from its website, from sending out e-mails and delayed the conference's transcription of quotes.
This year, an SEC logo on the hotel’s side can be seen from miles away.
From signs everywhere (even in the hotel rooms!), there are SEC helmets on the sides of escalators and projections of the SEC logo in the ballroom. And now there’s this:
“We decided this year that we wanted to go big or go home,” Sterley said. “A lot of talks back and forth between the city, ourselves, and the SEC. Ultimately the SEC decided that they wanted to do that, so they contracted it out.”
Putting up and taking down the building covering is a two-day process. The logo and slogan take up six floors of windows on the front side of the building.
“The relationships that we’ve got with some of the vendors is seamless at this point,” Sterley said. “They know kind of the parameters that they’re allowed to work within given our hotel, and we give them creative liberties to certain things.
“One of the pinnacles of being able to execute this, is seeing all of our hard work, all of the planning — like I mentioned over the last year or two — to all of the man hours that went into the last 72 hours, trying to get this thing turned around, and then finally turning on the TV and seeing the commissioner [Greg Sankey] up in front of everyone, live and talking to everyone from our hotel in Hoover, Alabama.”