Hotels Resilient During Oil Spill

TAMPA (2010-6-28) -

We've all seen lots of stories about gulf coast hotels besieged by oily gunk on their doorstep, their rooms emptied as wary vacationers stay away.
It's conventional wisdom by now.
But the data shows a different picture. Gulf coast hotels are doing pretty well on average, at least for now. 
George Chen might not agree. He owns a Comfort Suites  hotel near Disney World's Animal Kingdom. Although he's hundreds of miles away from the nearest oil-covered beach, he says occupancy is down 15 percent from where he expected it to be.
"One our of every 10 or so phone calls we do get questions about the oil spill," Chen says. And then the imagery of people picking up tar balls along the beaches, is not very conducive to wanting to visit."
The images of black sludge washing up onto white Florida beaches are dramatic.But so far, the effects on the lodging industry are not.
In fact, effects are "negligible,"according to Jeff Higley. Higley is a spokesman for  independent research firm  STR, which tracks occupancy rates for about two-thirds of Florida's gulf coast hotels.
He says as a whole, bookings are up.
For example, during one week in mid-June, hotels within ten miles of Florida's gulf coast reported that occupancy rates were up more than six percent from the same time last year.  And on Alabama's coast, they were up over 45 percent.
"What we think is happening is that people canceling vacation plans are being replaced by the workers...that are helping with the clean up that need a place to stay," Higley says.

"So we think there is a little bit of an offset there. Long term, it remains to be seen how hotels will be affected.

Also, visitor numbers are driven in large part by the economy. And although they're not great right now, they're still better than last year, which  Higley called "the worst year for the lodging industry in our lifetime."

Then, there's the boy wizard who's flown in to rescue tourism, at least in the Orlando area.

Brian Martin of the Orlando  Convention and Visitors Bureau says area tourism owes a big thanks to Harry Potter. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened June 18th at Universal Studios.
"After that," Martin says, "hotels have been filling rapidly. In fact, the week before Harry Potter opened, one of the online travel agencies told us bookings were up double digits -- and most people were saying it was because of Harry Potter."
Martin says the Harry Potter attraction is a huge draw for British tourists, who already sunburn here in large numbers. "Florida4Less" bills itself as the largest UK agency specializing in the state's travel and holiday homes. A spokesman for the company said bookings were up six percent over last year.
Which raises the question of whether vacationers are shifting from oil-soaked beaches to Orlando attractions?
Martin says nobody knows, but he doesn't feel that the oil spill is hurting business, either.
"We haven't gotten phone calls saying they were going to cancel because of it," he says, "and we've tried to monitor that. It may be happening at individual hotels, but not destination wide."
Great deals on room rates are also snagging more visitors. . In the Tampa Bay area, year-to-date occupancy is up 5 percent -- but rates are almost 12 percent lower than last year.
The deals are likely to continue, according to Higley of STR, as long as so much uncertainty surrounds the oil spill itself and its future effects on tourism.


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