|By Sara K. Clarke, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
April 20, 2011--Orlando hotels filled about eight of every 10 rooms in March, a rare feat that hasn't happened in three years.
Properties in the Orlando area logged an average occupancy rate of 80.6 percent -- the first time the local market has topped 80 percent since March 2008. And last month's occupancy was up 9.9 percent compared with the same month a year ago, according to data released Wednesday by Smith Travel Research.
"Even in our best times, it's tough to get 80 percent," said Scott Smith, a lodging instructor in the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management. When Orlando hotels manage such an average occupancy, it's usually in February or March, two of the busiest months of the year for Central Florida tourism.
This year, the Orange County Convention Center hosted a number of large shows in March, including MegaCon, which was expected to draw 40,000 people; CTIA Wireless, with a projected head count of 39,000; and the Heli-Expo International, projected to draw more than 15,000 conventioneers.
While the average occupancy rate has returned to levels last seen at the outset of the 2007-2009 recession, area hotels have not been able to resume charging the kinds of prices they did three years ago. The average daily rate last month was $103.71, up 5.6 percent from a year ago but still far below the average overnight charge of $120.71 reported in March 2008.
The market's overall improvement last month extended to all of its geographic segments, from downtown Orlando to Lake Buena Vista, and to all types of hotels, from luxury to budget. Smith said it's an indication that people are traveling again, even if they have not totally shaken the effects of the recession, Smith said.
"They're confident enough to travel and take vacations," he said, though "they're still uncertain about the future and the economy."
Downtown Orlando reported the biggest percentage gain in average occupancy among all of the local submarkets, with an 18.6 percent improvement from March 2010. Even the hard-hit west Kissimmee submarket reported a 9.2 percent increase in its occupancy.
In Lake Buena Vista, hotels filled nearly 90 percent of their rooms, up 6.4 percent from a year ago.
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