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Winter Season: Hotels Full, Retail Sales Slow

Feb. 17, 2006 – While many segments of the territory's tourism business seem to be doing well, particularly during the traditionally busy Presidents Day weekend, retail appears to be suffering.
St. John's Caravan Gallery owner Radha Speer said Friday that business is "soft." She agreed with results of a very random Source survey suggesting that while people are spending on hotels, food and activities, they are keeping their wallets closed when it comes to shopping.
Speer said customers are buying, but instead of spending on more expensive items, they're going home with more modestly priced goods. She also said they're shopping around more than she's seen in previous years.
On St. John Speer observed that an increased number of stores give shoppers more options but may be slicing the retail pie a bit thinner.
Carol Hill, manager at Into the Sea gift shop at Royal Dane Mall in downtown Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, said on Friday that business has been slow. Hill wasn't sure what caused the downturn, but said it appeared that cruise ship passengers just aren't spending like they did in years past.
LaTanya Williams, a clerk at Al Cohen's Discount Liquors in Havensight, St. Thomas, said Friday that business was "not as good as last year."
Amy Hamilton, owner of Hotheads store in Kings Alley Walk, St. Croix, said Friday that business is down from last year. "There's not enough tourists," she said.
Hamilton said that warm weather in the states may be keeping visitors away, but she also noted that not enough is done to advertise St. Croix.
She said the lack of visitors trickles down because local residents who aren't making money don't have it to spend on hats, accessories and swimwear at her store.
While retail may be suffering, other sectors are busy, busy, busy this Presidents Day weekend.
St. Croix is getting a boost with people attending the St. Croix Agricultural Fair, the International Regatta and those here on winter vacations sleeping in just about all the available hotel beds, but at least one hotelier worried that business won't be so robust for the rest of the winter tourism season.
"It's not at the same pace as last year. This year is slow," said Roger Carrington of Carringtons Inn on Friday.
He said that last year, people working on Hovensa projects helped keep the bed and breakfast's rooms filled.
Vicki Locke at the Buccaneer Hotel said Friday that the hotel is totally full with tourists, not people on island for the Agriculture Fair or the regatta.
"We've had a very strong year and tracking better than last year for the rest of the year," Locke said.
At least one car rental owner sees blue skies ahead.
Christie Powers, who owns Judi of Croix Car Rentals, said Friday that she doesn't have a car available until Feb. 25. "This is our best season and we're booked well for next month," she said, noting that she looked at records spanning the last five years.
She said that her customers are not on St. Croix for either the Agriculture Fair or the regatta, but are tourists.
Katherine Pugliese, owner of Restaurant Bacchus on St. Croix, said Friday that the number of customers is about the same as last year, but the restaurant's operations are smoother this year because she knows her customers better. "And there's no off nights," she said.
Pugliese said the restaurant had a great off-season thanks in part to its local following. She said the restaurant doesn't have to rely on tourists to fill its tables.
On St. Thomas, Bolongo Bay Beach Club manager Richard Doumeng said Thursday that warm weather in the Northeast isn't helping his business this winter.
However, he said that the penchant for last-minute trips continues so he now expects 20 to 30 percent of guests to book during the month they arrive.
"But when it's unseasonably warm, you don't have the pick up business," Doumeng said.
That said, he said the winter season is good with the occupancy rate close to what it was last year this time.
He said he sees that his guests prefer to spend less on accommodations and more on things like restaurant meals, sailing trips and the like, as well as massages.
Doumeng said that even though the winter season gets the older travelers, they want to enjoy activities as much as younger travelers.
Doumeng said the restaurants at Bolongo were doing well, particularly Iggies, which he said had become an attraction for tourists.
However, Greenhouse Restaurant floor manager Charles Mojher said Friday that business was slow at the popular Charlotte Amalie restaurant and nightspot.
"But yesterday we got busy," he said, hoping that the upcoming Presidents Day week follows suit.
Watersports are the game at Underwater Safaris, a Havensight, St. Thomas, dive operation. Staff member Michael Reeder said Friday business was good.
"We're doing better than last year," he said.
Andy Wartenberg, marketing manager at Atlantis submarine on St. Thomas, said the season was just beginning to gear up, but so far, it looks like it will be a good season.
Lonnie, owner of St. John Car Rental, said Friday all her cars were rented.
"We'd be able to rent more if there wasn't a quota," she said, referring to the limit placed by the Police Department on the number of rental cars allowed on each island.
Willis said that with 31 years in the business, she's learned to take each year as they come. She said that every year, some factor like the weather on the mainland influences business. She said that sometimes it's warm weather, but other times heavy snow may prevent people from catching their flights.
However, she said that this season was a little slow in starting.
On St. John, Cruz Bay Photo owner Craig Dengler agreed Friday that the winter season seems a little late in starting and January seemed a little "pokey," but he now has lots of customers coming through his Wharfside Village store.
Matt Balcik, hotel manager at the Westin Resort and Villas, said Friday that business is booming. "It looks like it will probably be our best year ever," he said.
Balcik said the hotel had an 89 percent occupancy rate in January, expects to hit 96 percent in February and March, and is forecast to run at 92 percent in April.
He said that the hurricane damage that kept Cancun hotels closed for the winter helped fill Virgin Islands hotels.
"It's just been amazing," he said. However, he had one caveat.
"We want to make sure we give them value so they come back next year," he said, adding that this includes treating the guests well.
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