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Early Hotel Bookings Suggest Slow Winter for Central Oregon

By Zack Hall, The Bulletin, Bend, Ore.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Oct. 8, 2009--If a lack of early bookings is any indication, this could be a long winter for Central Oregon businesses dependent on tourists.

Hotels and local tourism agencies are reporting only a trickle of early bookings as Central Oregon moves to the fall and winter travel seasons.

That is not surprising to many in the industry, who are bracing for what potentially could be another slow run of colder months.

"I think collectively, everyone is reporting that if we can be flat with last year, that would be tremendous," said Alana Audette, president and CEO of the Central Oregon Visitors Association. "I don't know that anyone is expecting that we will be flat. I think the expectation is that we might continue to be slightly down from the previous year."

Room-tax collections, considered the most reliable indicator of tourism activity, were down significantly last winter, as the recession gripped the region and beyond.

In unincorporated Deschutes County, room-tax revenue dropped anywhere from 17 percent to more than 32 percent from December 2008 to April 2009 in comparison with the corresponding month a year earlier.

In the city of Bend, year-over-year monthly drops ranged from 16.6 percent to 27.9 percent during the same months.

And room bookings might be down again this winter. But it could be too early to tell. Lodging occupancy in Bend last winter was 30 percent in December, 31.7 percent in January and 38.2 percent in February, according to the Web site for Visit Bend, the city's tourism promotion agency.

The recession has triggered shorter booking windows for leisure travelers, making it difficult for the travel industry to forecast what lies ahead this winter.

"Honestly, I think the winter bookings will be a lot closer to the date that (Mt. Bachelor ski area) is actually open," Audette said. "When the snow starts to fly and the mountain schedules an opening date, then we start to see a pickup in bookings. But until then, it's sadly quite soft. And not really any different than the trends that we've seen from the last 12 months or so."

At The Riverhouse HotelandConvention Center in Bend, for instance, leisure travelers wait to book until about 1� weeks or less before their check-in date, said Lara Wettig, the Riverhouse's director of marketing.

"From the leisure standpoint, it's too soon to tell simply because the booking window has shortened so dramatically," Wettig said. "People are not planning weeks in advance to take a fall or winter getaway.

"The leisure business is still soft, but it is showing signs of recovery. So that is encouraging. And as far as fourth-quarter group business, we are actually up over last year."

Sunriver Resort has seen similar positive signs and is cautiously optimistic about the winter months.

"Our booking window is still shorter," said Katy Sparks, marketing manager for Sunriver Resort. "We are seeing some pickup over Thanksgiving. But we're pretty much the same (as other area hotel properties), kind of slower."

Tourism agencies, such as COVA and Visit Bend, will be more targeted in their advertising this year, too.

COVA is planning to spend about 40 percent of its advertising budget in Oregon, spending the rest on Western states such as California, Idaho and Washington.

Visit Bend plans to promote special events.

One such event is the 2009 USA Cyclo-Cross National Championships, which is expected to bring several thousand racers to Central Oregon in December. In fact, Doug La Placa, president and CEO of Visit Bend, expects a relatively strong December in Bend based on that race alone.

Visit Bend also expects to promote Bend WinterFest and Mt. Bachelor's "aggressive" pricing this year, La Placa said.

"Having said those things, we recognize that winter will continue to be a challenge," La Placa says. "But I think those events will have an impact. If we can hold consistent numbers with last year, I think in the short term that's a good thing. We will worry about growth later. Unfortunately, that's the environment we are in."

Zack Hall can be reached at 541-617-7868 or at zhall@bendbulletin.com.

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