Area hotels say visitors aren’t coming

By By Rachel Molenda
Staff writer

Hotel occupancy in the Charleston area is critically low, the operators of those hotels said Wednesday.

“It’s not a pretty sight,” Georgette George, manager of the Holiday Inn in South Charleston, said Wednesday during the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau monthly board meeting.

Charleston Marriott Town Center Manager Steve Lemmerman said the hotel’s occupancy is down about 5 percent. George said the Holiday Inn looks like it will be down about 10 percent by the end of the year. Both of them are members of the CVB’s board.

“Those, what I would call weekend visits, they’re making other plans,” George said of in-state residents who ordinarily might take short trips to Charleston.

Rick Atkinson, director of Yeager Airport, said air traffic was down 14 percent in February, which he attributed to poor weather conditions. When winter storms hit, Atkinson said, airlines will often cancel entire schedules, negatively affecting those destination cities.

“You lose that trip,” Atkinson said. “The person that was going to come here and stay at the Marriott or Hampton [Inn] and make sales calls, they’re not doing because they’ve scheduled something else three days later when the airline is flying.”

No one at Wednesday’s meeting specifically blamed the water crisis, after a Jan. 9 chemical leak from Freedom Industries contaminated the drinking water for 300,000 West Virginia American Water customers.

Lemmerman and George said they’ve seen a decrease in large event bookings in 2014.

But, the CVB is only 307 room nights away from meeting its booking goal (24,500 room nights) for the year.

The disconnect in current occupancy and the CVB’s success lies in how the CVB does business -- booking events years in advance.

“What we hear from the hotel community is you want larger pieces of business,” said CVB vice president of sales Tim Brady. “We hear this term ‘citywide’ kicked around all the time. You want big business. Big business doesn’t book in the year, for the year. That stuff books three years out.”

Thought the CVB is on track to meet its bookings goals for 2014, Lemmerman said he wants to see more short-term return.

“You can’t be making your goals on one side and then the hotel industry is deteriorating on the other side,” Lemmerman said.

May, June and July are expected to bring the worst quarter the Marriott has seen in years, Lemmerman said.

CVB President Alisa Bailey said comparing the organization’s output and current hotel occupancy rates is “apples and oranges, because we’re not mostly in the year for the year.”

Tension rose between CVB staff and commissioners as the conversation continued. Bailey said the commissioners’ comments felt like criticism.

George said the CVB is “doing the right thing” in making an strong effort in its advanced bookings, but that the board is “fixing history.”

“What you’re seeing now in 2013 and ‘14 is the result of what was going on in this organization in 2011 and 2012,” Brady said, citing “personnel issues” for the CVB’s past lack of production.

Commissioners said they knew and discussed during 2010 and 2011 there would be issues in the future.

“We’ve got to figure out how we get out of the bad corner for the hoteliers,” George said.

Lemmerman told the board the trend isn’t limited to Charleston, but rather the industry is suffering even in places like New York and Philadelphia.

“They’re giving away convention space in Philadelphia. They’re giving convention space away in Washington, D.C.,” Lemmerman said. “They’re giving it away to try to get business there.”

George said she is expecting a downturn in the hotel industry within next two years based on a market study that was conducted.

“We were lucky in ‘08 not to dive like the rest of the country,” George said. “I’m not sure we’re going to have that same luxury in the next round, and that’s what I think we’re aiming for. What are we going to do differently?”

Reach Rachel Molenda at or 304-348-5102.

MARRIOTT1: The Charleston Marriott Town Center is expecting its worst quarter in years, starting in May, said Manager Steve Lemmerman. Hotels in the Charleston area are experiencing very low occupancy this year, hoteliers told the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

MARRIOTT2: A guest pushes his luggage cart into the Charleston Marriott Town Center Wednesday. Manager Steve Lemmerman said Wednesday the hotel is experiencing a large downturn in occupancy this year.

MARRIOTT3: Guests lounge inside the Charleston Marriott Town Center lobby. Manager Steve Lemmerman said Wednesday the hotel is experiencing a large downturn in occupancy this year.

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