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Hot Summer Seen For VI Hoteliers

Aug. 9, 2007 – Hoteliers in the Virgin Islands are enjoying a better-than-expected summer season, though tourism is expected to slow over the next month as the Virgin Islands moves into the height of the hurricane season in mid-September.
"In September and October we're fighting the H word," said Rik Blyth, director of the V.I. Hotel and Tourism Association.
An informal survey of hotel managers and owners and industry officials on St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix found that projected occupancy levels for July were high for many hotels, with the numbers dropping a bit in August before plummeting in September.
A number of factors played into the summer success, according to those contacted by the Source.
Blyth said that the Tourism Department's 90th Anniversary promotion recognizing the territory's 90 years as an American territory has done very well. The promotion gives visitors a fifth night free at participating hotels as well as complimentary and discounted activities and gifts.
"It's done so well, we've extended it through the end of October," he said.
According to Matt Balcik, manager of the Westin Resort and Villas on St. John, "July was our busiest month this year." He said the increase was due to the fact that U.S. hotel guests don't need passports to travel to and from the U.S. Virgin Islands.
In January, the State Department instituted new rules requiring passports for re-entry from Mexico, Canada, Bermuda and the Caribbean.
Balcik said that July had a 94 percent occupancy rate, higher than any other month this year. He said the hotel expects to have a 90 percent occupancy rate in August, with the number dropping to 50 percent in September. Balcik anticipates that October, November and December occupancy will be between 80 and 90 percent.
He said that in addition to the passport factor, terrorism in Europe such as the June attack on an airport in Glasgow, Scotland, seems to be sending visitors this way.
And he said that time share sales are going gangbusters.
Pat Henry, manager of the Divi Carina Bay Resort on St. Croix, agreed with Blyth that the 90th Anniversary Promotion was a boon. He said it was the most successful promotion in recent years.
However, he said the Divi also used some creative marketing to develop a family package that included a kids' camp.
"That helped in July," he said.
He said that contract workers on St. Croix for a Hovensa project filled up rooms in May and into early June, which boosted occupancy in those months. Henry said last June, the occupancy rate stood at 51.9 percent. This June, it hit 74.9 percent.
As for July, the numbers aren't in yet, but Henry estimated a 60 percent occupancy rate compared to 53 percent last year.
Henry also said that the Divi's 18-hole mini-golf range, which opened in May, has boosted hotel revenues although it doesn't seem that it's drawing more hotel guests.
However, he said that the Divi's casino packages are a big draw for visitors from Puerto Rico who come on a package.
Autumn is a different story, Henry said.
"I wouldn't spend $2,000, $3,000 or $4,000 right in the middle of hurricane season," he said.
Edythe Dirks, chief financial officer at the St. Thomas-based McLaughlin Anderson Luxury Villas, which has villas around the Virgin Islands, said the summer has been good.
"Is there an off-season? We've been so darn busy I can't believe it's summer," she said.
She said that while McLaughlin-Anderson has some vacancies during the summer, they were about the same number as last year.
Dirks said that September usually sees lots of last-minute bookers who take advantage of airfare sales.
"We always advise people to buy flight insurance," she said.
The Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas is among those benefiting from 11th-hour bookings, making this summer stronger than that of 2006, according to Jenny Highlander, hotel spokeswoman. "Most weekends are sold out," she said, and Labor Day weekend looks strong as well.
She attributed the Ritz-Carlton's success to recent renovations that garnered lots of publicity in the national press.
Lisa Hamilton, director of marketing at Marriott Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort on St. Thomas, said the hotel had a 90 percent occupancy rate in July. August was projected to run 75 percent, but advance bookings already put it at 77 percent.
"We've still got the balance of August to put in room nights," she said.
She too gave some of the credit to the 90th Anniversary promotion. She said it was the first time in a number of years that hoteliers had monetary support from the Tourism Department when it comes to promotions.
"There's a direct correlation between spending money and occupancy," she said.
Claudia Carrington, who owns Carringtons Inn on St. Croix, said that her early summer looked pretty good thanks to the fact that Hovensa workers filled up other properties. She got the overflow from visitors who couldn't find rooms elsewhere.
She said July was OK, with an occupancy rate of 40 to 50 percent.
Carrington said that August looks slow, but she's cheered by the fact she's seeing a lot of repeat visitors.
Lisa Durgin, who owns Vacation Vistas villa management company on St. John, said August was picking up with lots of last-minute bookers. She said it was better than last year.
As for the fear that national media attention about the June murder of James Cockayne on St. John will hurt the island's tourism economy, Durgin said she hasn't heard any concerns from customers.
"But maybe they're just not calling," she said.
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