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Cruz Bay
Tuesday, February 7, 2023


Oct. 24, 2001 – There have been hotel layoffs and shift cutbacks locally in the face of the abnormally slow fall season and people's fear of flying since Sept. 11, a major tour operator has decided to abandon the territory this winter, and one hotel has closed. Even so, some hoteliers and event planners say they're optimistic about a rebound, and even those who aren't say they're not about to throw in the towel.
"This is only the second time in 27 years that we have laid people off," said Richard Doumeng, general manager of Bolongo Bay Beach Club and Villas on St. Thomas.
Doumeng, who also is president of the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel and Tourism Association, said the other time was in 1995 after Hurricane Marilyn decimated the entire tourism industry in the territory. He said most of the 20 workers who have recently been laid off worked in the resort's two restaurants.
In contrast, Chris Goodier, spokeswoman for The Buccaneer Hotel on St. Croix, said that property has experienced only the normal slow-season cutbacks in personnel. "We haven't had any wholesale layoffs," she said.
Luigi Romaniello, resident manager at Caneel Bay Resort on St. John, said that while staffing is below season levels, many employees took their vacations after Sept. 11. "We're calling them back according to need," he said, saying that the upscale hotel is still in a "little recession."
Normally Caneel Bay would run at about 60 percent occupancy during October, Romaniello said, but this year it's down to 35 percent.
At the Sunterra Carambola Resort on St. Croix, seasonal layoffs in the spring meant that the hotel, which has about 125 employees during season, already was down to minimal staff on Sept. 11. Manager Ike Turner said 17 people were laid off last spring, and now the resort has cut the work week for most personnel to 32 hours instead of 40.
Turner was among several hoteliers who said they expect the situation to improve. His take on the matter is that the terrorist attacks have "put off the start of the winter season by about four months."
At the Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas Resort, manager Jamie Holmes said that rather than lay people off, the hotel has cut work hours by about 20 percent. He said the hotel is doing as well as it did last year at this time, but noted that the property was undergoing some construction then that cut into its occupancy level.
Greg Lundberg, general manager of the Westin Resort on St. John, also that property only has cut hours, with no layoffs. He said it was hard to quantify the picture because the number of hours employees work depends on need and seniority. He said the hotel closed its Beach Café except on weekends because the hotel was not full enough to support it.
Looking ahead, Goodier said the Buccaneer is almost fully booked for the Christmas holiday. Thanksgiving looks pretty good, too, she said, and so does the coming weekend, when 177 people will use the hotel as a base for the annual Coral Reef Swim competition. A total of 143 swimmers flew into St. Croix for the event, she said, the majority of them are staying at the hotel.
After experiencing a few cancellations following Sept. 11, Goodier said, she was heartened to see that two recent wedding parties of about 30 people each stuck to their plans made before the terrorist attacks. And a steady flow of business and government travelers who are still booking rooms at the Buccaneer "fills in the holes," she said. She said it is still too early to tell for winter and the normally busy Easter and spring break weeks.
C.C. Colo, operations manager at Island Meetings and Incentives on St. Thomas, said convention and incentive groups are looking to book here. "We sent out 20 proposals in the past two weeks" in response to queries, she said. There were some cancellations after Sept. 11, but it looks as if business will pick up after January, she said.
Brooks Brown, owner of Tropic Tours on St. Thomas, also said that convention and incentive group planners are again looking to book. She noted that such plans are typically made six months ahead of meeting dates.
Holmes said the Ritz-Carlton picked up "two or three groups" that had booked their events at foreign locations but decided after Sept. 11 that they would feel more comfortable in the Virgin Islands. One group has booked 500 room nights for January, he said, while the others were groups of about 100 people each. While the Ritz-Carlton saw one cancellation from an incentive group, he said, the corporate organization instead sent the people as individuals rather than as a group.
Doumeng, however, said things don't look so promising at Bolongo Bay — which, unlike most of the larger properties in the Virgin Islands, is not part of a chain as far as ownership, management and/or marketing. In normal years, he said, the hotel would already be 90 to 95 percent booked for Christmas, he said, and right now, only 60 percent of the rooms are reserved.
The recently announced decision by Apple Vacations not to send charter tours from the Chicago area this season compounds the problems already experienced by the territory, he said.
Last year, Apple booked 900 room nights at his hotel, which put $180,000 in the hotel's coffers, Doumeng said. This year, the tour operator already had booked 600 room nights worth $160,000 when it terminated operations. "To lose that many room nights in a market already underserved is a big loss," he said. Among the scheduled airlines, only United flies directly to the territory from Chicago — once a week.
But Doumeng said the territory's current low bookings aren't entirely due to terrorism concerns. "We were looking at serious challenges even before Sept. 11," he said. Back in July, he said, a Boston-based tour operator, GWV, announced that it would not be sending tours to the Virgin Islands this season.
Other reasons for slow advance bookings for August, September and October, Doumeng said, included high air fares, bad press about hurricane season and new cut-rate competition. Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic and an area known as "the Mexican Riviera" near Cancun on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula have boomed, he said, putting nearly 50,000 new hotel rooms on the tropical market. Cheap package deals lure visitors who want don't care where they find sun and sand for their vacation, he said.
The Best Western Carib Beach Resort on Lindbergh Bay across from the Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas closed at the beginning of September, according to an employee of its sister property, the Best Western Emerald Beach Resort. It was not clear if the closing was to be temporary or permanent.
Doumeng said that while the Tourism Department's recently launched advertising efforts will help some, it will not convince people to fly to the Virgin Islands who don't want to get on a plane. And, he said, some people are waiting to see how low prices will drop before they book.
"But I still believe there will be a hotel industry here," he said. "The strong will survive."

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