Sunday, August 31, 2008

Gustav has Gulf hotels on edge

As Hurricane Gustav gained force Friday, the Gulf Coast's tourism industry was gearing up for the key holiday weekend while keeping a wary eye on the storm and preparing for the mixed bag it may bring next week.

The weekend's Southern Decadence gay pride festival in New Orleans, which drew 120,000 people last year, was expected to go on as planned, and Louisiana State University's football team still aimed to kick off against Appalachian State in Baton Rouge today.

"As a tourism community at this point, we are operating business as usual," said Kelly Schulz, a spokeswoman for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We've not seen any mass cancellations."

A hurricane obviously can damage hotels in its path, but those in surrounding areas can see a boost as relief and construction workers move into the area, said Susquehanna Financial Group analyst Robert LaFleur.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans three years ago Friday, hotels also were used as long-term housing for people who had lost their homes.

"In a very sort of counter intuitive way, it was a net benefit for the hotels in the area because of storm displacement and temporary housing," LaFleur said. "It's not the way you want to boost your business, but unfortunately it's the reality."

All rooms booked

Baton Rouge, which is one hour inland from New Orleans, is virtually sold out, said Theresa Overby, a spokeswoman for the Baton Rouge Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. First responders, government agencies and contractors have booked nearly all the available rooms not already taken by people involved in and watching the LSU game.

A tennis tournament planned for this weekend was rescheduled, freeing up a couple of hundred rooms that were snapped up within minutes, Overby said. She said the city has secured some furnished condominiums for journalists in need of space.

Coastal residents evacuating their homes are being directed farther north.

"We just don't have the inventory," Overby said of hotels in her area.

The Sheraton New Orleans, one of very few hotels that stayed open during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and their aftermath in 2005, is prepared to house first-responders and emergency personnel in roughly 200 of its 1,100 rooms.

Tommy Morel, director of sales and marketing of the New Orleans region for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, said he is amazed at how many of the hotel's staff have volunteered to stay and ride out the storm in the event of an evacuation order in New Orleans.

"In general, everybody's really taking this seriously," Morel said. He noted that the hotel has only had a few small cancellations so far. "We gladly let them cancel," he said.

Olivier House Hotel Manager Bobby Danner said cancellations at his small family-owned hotel in the city's French Quarter jumped Friday to roughly 25 percent of his 42 rooms.

"It hasn't completely devastated the weekend," Danner said of the storm. "But it's had an effect."

Rebooking may be tricky

Travel booking site Orbitz has e-mailed 650 travelers warning them about Gustav, and expects to contact more over the weekend.

Spokeswoman Jeanenne Diefendorf said threatening storms often prompt travelers to shift bookings elsewhere, though overall bookings don't generally drop.

"When we see something like this happen earlier in the week, people will tend to look at other places, other destinations that aren't going to be affected," Diefendorf said.

With airlines now routinely filling more than 80 percent of seats on average — and many flights full — rebooking an alternate flight will be trickier, said Ed Perkins, a contributing editor to

But many in the industry hope Gulf Coast vacationers will stick with their plans this weekend.

"With a sunny and clear forecast for the weekend, we hope to have a normal Labor Day as people arrive on Friday evening, stay through the weekend and depart on Monday morning," said Herb Malone, president and chief executive of the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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