Irene May Have Been Sucker Punch for Tourism

August 31st, 2011 by Desiree Parker



Fear of blocked roads and power outages scared some tourists from the Historic Triangle. (Photo by Will Armbruster.)

Hurricane Irene swept into the Triangle just as the tourism industry was gearing up for Labor Day. Business was hurt the weekend the storm hit and local industry experts say the impact will be a real blow to already suffering hotels.

Tourism professionals in the area agreed that Irene affected revenues over the weekend when it hit, clearing out tourists who didn’t want to be caught in its path and keeping them away as attractions and hotels worked to clear debris and restore power and services. It is unclear whether the end of the summer season, Labor Day, will help recover some of the losses, but some in the industry expect visitors will brave the previous weekend’s problems and follow through with travel plans.

“The hotels and attractions have lost lots of business,” says Bob Harris, the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance’s vice president for tourism, speaking of the weekend Irene hit. “August is almost equal to July, which is the biggest month [in tourism]. Taking a weekend out of one of our busiest months will have an impact.”

“The entire summer has been down thus far and traditionally the weekend before Labor Day weekend is soft and this weekend would have been the same even if there were no hurricane,” said Ron Kirkland, regional general manager for the Patrick Henry Inn and Bluegreen Resorts in Williamsburg.

He said for his non-timeshare property, “the weekend was a wash. For every guest that checked out it seemed like we had one stop in on the way back from the beach or [the Outer Banks].” His resort property fared a bit better.

For hotelier Chris Canavos, who owns a local Country Inn and Suites, the hurricane weekend cleaned out his hotel. “This weekend started out full for me… by Saturday we had only 12 rooms full, and then they all left,” he said.

He agrees with Kirkland that this was a worse blow after a summer of very low occupancy for local hotels. “The storm will cause us some hardship; it shows that a weaker destination like ours can’t absorb a body shot like Virginia Beach can,” he said.

He points out that August has already been slow, with upper-tier hotels down 4.5 percent through Aug. 20, middle-tier hotels down 10.1 percent and lower-tier hotels down 22.2 percent over last year, which also wasn’t stellar. The summer has been poor overall, he says.

Williamsburg Hotel & Motel Association President Billy Scruggs agrees that “this storm is certainly going to put a damper on a summer that has not been great. It has been a difficult year for hoteliers in the destination – occupancy rates are bad. Knocking out three or four days [of revenue] is hard.”

On the bright side, he points out that “for those fortunate enough to have electricity, it was a good weekend.”

Also, in the days since the storm, many power, road and insurance workers have been staying at local hotels while working to respond to storm damage, Harris points out, and this will be a boon for some hotels.

Looking forward to the Labor Day weekend, the tourism industry experts tentatively think that visitors will venture back into the Triangle.

Scruggs says hoteliers have lost some bookings for an upcoming soccer tournament over the weekend, “but it looks like it will continue strong.” He says the tourists who planned to come will probably try to salvage their plans, despite the bad weather news. “People will be sensitive to the damage, but they will likely call first” to see if properties are safe and open, he said.

Harris doesn’t expect the upcoming weekend to be a loss. “I don’t think it will be a huge impact [on Labor Day weekend], as most businesses should have power,” he said. With most major attractions now open, “if visitors are planning to come, they will still come.”

Colonial Williamsburg spokesman Tom Shrout says CW “will be ready for Labor Day guests who are looking to get away for a long weekend.” As for whether he thinks visitors will come to the area, “I think it depends on how people were affected where they live in terms of whether they have power, how much clean-up they may have ahead of them and so forth.”

Kirkland offered his own prediction beyond just Labor Day: “I would imagine that when the reports start coming in for August it will be about as bad as July was and it won’t be due to a natural disaster, or anxiety, or macro economics.

“This will go down as the worst summer for tourism that anyone can remember in the Historic Triangle.”

3 Responses to Irene May Have Been Sucker Punch for Tourism

  1. Anonymous

    August 31, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    Let’s not forget that Williamsburg primary feeder market, the North East corridor, has been hit with the very same storm. Those that live there are reeling from the effects of Irene as well. Consequently, they are less likely to want to jump in their car and come here. Having said that, I hope they do. As we all know, our Single primary driver, Busch Gardens, is up and running. Additionally, our secondary driver Colonial Williamsburg; has cleaned up and open for business. “Welcome to Williamsburg”

  2. Anonymous

    September 1, 2011 at 10:57 am

    Thank you Randall for saying some kind words about the area. The naysayers that constantly belittle our market in the press should take notice. The insulting comments about no business and lack of support and whatever the current gripe is, certainly can convince tourists to go elsewhere.

    The new and high-end property in town seems to be doing fine. Maybe it could be their product.

  3. Anonymous

    September 1, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    To “thanks Randall”, While appreciate you gratitude I feel I should offer some clarity. First, I don’t feel anyone quoted in the article above are being “negative” or “insulting”. In fact, I believe the statements were made by professionals in the market thus should be heard. Second, and most importantly, Williamsburg suffers from a lack of demand. This is evident with the decline in attendance to both Busch Gardens (down 500,000 over the last 8 to 10 years) and Colonial Williamsburg (down 600,000 over the last 20+ years). I don’t say this to demean our valuable attractions and readers shouldn’t take it as such. Facts, that’s all.

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