|By Sara K. Clarke, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
March 22, 2011--Orlando's hotel industry reported broad-based improvement in February, according to a new report about the local hospitality market by Smith Travel Research.
Hotels in the Orlando area filled 73.2 percent of their rooms last month, a 12.3 percent increase in average occupancy compared with the same month a year ago. Hoteliers also were able to raise their average daily price by 7.7 percent compared with February 2010.
The International Drive area continued to lead the pack in terms of year-over-year improvement, but most other submarkets also reported double-digit percentage growth in revenue per available room, a key industry measure that combines occupancy and room rate. That's a possible sign the recent boost from last summer's opening of Universal Orlando's Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which had largely benefited I-Drive hotels, is giving way to a broader recovery.
"It's across all markets," said Scott Smith, a lodging instructor at the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management. "I'm talking to hoteliers out there who are just beaming."
Stuart Newmark, general manager of the Westin Lake Mary, said people are still conscious of their spending but are traveling more on business.
"I think a lot of hotels saw an uptick in the amount of travel ... as companies and as businesses and organizations are starting to look toward moving things forward," Newmark said.
Like the market overall, the Buena Vista Palace Hotel & Spa had higher occupancy and price.
"It's a combination of both leisure travelers as well as an increase in group and conventions," said Greg Hauenstein, the hotel's managing director.
Upscale and luxury hotels led the way in growth last month, while economy and budget hotels saw less-robust improvement. The average daily room rate for hotels in the Orlando area last month was $104.28, compared with $96.79 a year earlier, according to the Smith Travel, whose survey does not include Walt Disney World hotels.
With March bringing spring-break vacationers, hoteliers are relatively upbeat.
Gerald Barrack, general manager of the Embassy Suites Lake Buena Vista and the Embassy Suites Orlando-Downtown, reported year-over-year growth for February but also noted that "March is even better."
At the Buena Vista Palace, Hauenstein said he's seen "tremendous" demand among spring breakers.
"March is exceeding all of our expectations and forecasts," he said.
UCF's Smith (no relation to the survey firm) warned that gas prices have the potential to blunt any travel recovery. Paying a lot more at the gas pump can affect consumer confidence, even if it doesn't add a lot to the cost of a vacation, so Orlando's tourism industry doesn't want to see prices rise sharply.
"The big thing, quite frankly, is everyone's watching the oil prices and the Mideast," Smith said. "That could really derail this whole movement."
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