Sept. 1, 2003 – The territory's summer season saw lots of variables, with hotel size and location among the factors that mattered most when it came to bottom lines. However, several hoteliers said the world's crises — the SARS epidemic in Asia, the war in Iraq and threats of terrorism just about everywhere — helped the Virgin Islands entice visitors because the U.S. flag flies overhead.
"We had a higher occupancy than last year," the Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas general manager, Jamie Holmes, said.
He said the resort's percentage of occupancy was in the high 80s to low 90s, but much of that business came from honeymooners and people at the Ritz-Carlton for weddings.
The Ritz-Carlton also had a lot of people escaping the hot and humid weather of the southeastern United States, Holmes said. With the resort's summer prices half what they are in the winter season, a vacation there represented good value, he said.
The Renaissance Grand Beach Resort also offered its normal lower summer rates, which helped fill rooms, its general manager, David Yamada, said. "It's just now starting to drop off," he said.
At the other end of the spectrum, the small Danish Chalet Inn on St. Thomas had a "terrible" summer, co-owner Mary Davis said. Small owner-operated hotels can't afford to cut rates like the chain resorts do, she said, and as a result, there's not so much difference in price between a large resort and a small hotel — so vacationers opt for the larger property with more amenities.
Richard Doumeng, general manager of the family-owned Bolongo Bay Beach Club on St. Thomas, agreed with Davis. He said he decided not to try to compete rate wise with the larger hotels this summer. That decision proved solid throughout June and July, but August was slow, and September and October don't look any better. "In hindsight, I regret it," he said.
Because of the SARS problem in Asia, Doumeng said, he had many visitors from the U.S. West Coast. Instead of going to Hawaii, a transit stop for passengers heading to and from Asia, they opted for the Caribbean.
Helena Tyrell, a reservation agent at Avis Rent A Car on St. Thomas, said the summer was good. She, too, said that business was just starting to slow down at the end of August.
At Magens Bay, virtually always a stop for St. Thomas visitors, general manager Bill Jowers said it has been a busy summer. In fact, one day in July saw about 2,000 people at the beach — most of them from the two Carnival cruise ships in port that day.
St. John always seems to hold its own nowadays. While officials of the larger resorts could not be reached for comment, Kathy Demar, who owns Vacation Homes, said her occupancy rate was strong until the second week of August.
While she had a lot of group bookings over the summer, most of August's visitors were couples. However, she said, they were not the honeymooners she has seen in previous years.
Demar speculated that honeymooners these days prefer all-inclusive resorts where they'll be waited on "hand and foot," instead of fending for themselves in a vacation villa.
Albert Willis, owner of St. John Car Rental, said business this summer was as good as last year's — and is now back up to pre-Hurricane Marilyn levels. He, too, reported a slowdown in the second week of August.
Business also dropped off in mid-August at The Fish Trap and the Stone Terrace Restaurant, both owned by Willis.
The hotel business in St. Croix was not great over the summer.
Claudia Carrington, owner of Carringtons Inn St. Croix, said only aggressive marketing on the Internet helped fill rooms. "I don't know how small businesses do without it," she said.
She offered a fifth night free, a promotion that she said helped to keep the bed and breakfast busier than she had expected.
At Carambola Beach Resort, occupancy was 30 to 35 percent, general manager Derek Newton said. Group visits were down, he said, but the number of transient guests increased by about 10 percent.
On the other hand, Newton said, Carambola's banquet business boomed over the summer, with enough weddings and other functions to boost revenues by $400,000 over last year.
At Olympia Car Rental, business was off from last summer. "Lots of people are afraid of traveling," owner Sal Sanpere said, citing a weak U.S. economy and the Iraq war as factors that hurt his business.
Sanpere said a shortage of both hotel rooms and flights to St. Croix added to his financial troubles — on top of the fact that this summer there were no cruise ship arrivals.
Sanpere and others in the hospitality industry on St. Croix had some harsh words for what they see as the government's failure to promote the island in particular and the Virgin Islands in general. "We don't want St. Thomas here," he said, "but we want a little bit."
Doumeng, a former president of the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel and Tourism Association, was critical of what he termed the Tourism Department's failure to call personally on airlines, tour operators, travel agencies and other businesses with the potential to send lots of business to the Virgin Islands.
"It's almost criminally negligent how they ignore the importance of pressing the flesh of people in the tourism industry," he said.
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