By Leah Beth Ward, The Charlotte Observer, N.C.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH, N.C.--May 24--In the hotel business, says Mary Webber Martin, "one of the worst things that can happen is you close."
So when Hurricane Bertha hit the Blockade Runner in July 1996 followed by Fran six weeks later, Martin knew that more than just the sky had fallen on her family-owned hotel.
Fortunately, after nine evacuations since 1984, she was prepared. Martin, who is general manager, and her staff of about 140 went into hurricane-style marketing mode to reassure guests who booked before Bertha that they were still welcome afterward. After Fran, they would do it all over again.
Bertha made her untimely appearance in the hotel's "golden month of July" as Martin calls it, shearing the roof off the restaurant. Repair work cost the hotel a temporary loss of 30 prime rooms with ocean views.
"We patched the restaurant back together and planned to gut the rooms over the winter. Well, then here came Fran."
Built in the '60s, the Blockade Runner is not a historic structure, but it's an institution on the island as a gathering place for tourists and residents alike.
Though it sits on the highest point of the island, the hotel's dune system worked well as protection, and Fran unleashed most of her wrath farther up the island. The Blockade Runner lost lobby windows but managed to open three days after Fran, housing Red Cross workers among the guests.
For the 1997 summer season, Wrightsville Beach lost a total of about 750 rooms. The Blockade Runner's business was off about 15 percent. The hurricane damage and resulting loss of business took a hefty toll, Martin said, but she declined to quantify the damage.
This season, the hotel is more than ready for guests. The grounds are freshly groomed, sea oats have been sown and new stonework lines the walkways.
But Martin's work to rebuild business is far from over. Hurricanes are bad enough: "People only remember from all the news media reports that you're closed, not that you've reopened," she said.
Her goal of turning the beachfront hotel into a year-round locale for business meetings was also set back. The hotel has always been open year-round, but getting the message out has been tough because marketing resources are limited. "I'm it," Martin said.
To attract winter business travelers, the pool was converted to both indoor and outdoor use. Bar and lobby spaces were reconfigured to handle large buffets for meetings and conventions.
"We've been trying very hard to market to the business traveler because we're more accessible than people might think at first," Martin said.
"Plus it's really lovely here in the winter and we can almost guarantee no hurricanes."
(c) 1998, The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.