|By Louis Hau, St. Petersburg Times, Fla.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Feb. 10, 2005 - Most Daytona Beach area hotels were able to get storm damage fixed before the Daytona 500.
With the green flag ready to drop at the Daytona 500 this month, Daytona Beach hotelier Gary Brown has been under the gun getting ready.
His Sun Viking Lodge on S. Atlantic Avenue had to close 41 of its 91 rooms last fall after they were damaged by hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne.
After a frantic effort to corral contractors and repair crews, Brown and his staff began reopening rooms in January, about half a dozen a week. The final six were reopened last week.
"It's been like a root canal once a week," Brown said. "It's no fun and I hope I don't have to go through this again for another 20 years."
Gearing up for the famed race on Feb. 20 is an annual ritual for lodging establishments in the area. But preparations for the 2005 race have turned out to be their stiffest challenge. Last year's hurricanes caused major structural damage that shuttered thousands of rooms and condemned some locations for demolition.
With the race peeking over the horizon just a few months away, hotel and motel owners moved quickly to get their facilities repaired. But in many cases, doing so took far longer than expected. With large swaths of the state digging out from under the destructive force of the hurricanes and home builders continuing to do brisk business throughout the region, building materials and skilled labor were hard to come by.
Even after months of repairs, about 17 percent of the 13,500 hotel and motel rooms in the Daytona Beach area from Ormond By The Sea to Ponce Inlet remain closed, according to the Hotel Motel Association of Volusia County. Given that local hotels enjoy an average occupancy rate of more than 90 percent during the 500, that has left a shortage of rooms.
"We mistakenly assumed that it would not take a lot of time to put everything back to together again," said Sharon Mock, executive director of the Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. "We really expected to be fully back up by the 500 and that just did not happen."
Still, Mock said she's happy about the repair work that's been completed. "It's nice to be getting back to normal," she said.
Among those affected are some of the biggest lodging names in the area. The newly christened 212-room Shores Resort and Spa in Daytona Beach Shores, formerly a Hilton hotel, is undergoing renovations and won't be open until May 1. The Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort, formerly the Adams Mark Hotel, had planned major renovations before the hurricanes hit but storm damage forced it to close. Its 300-room north tower reopened last week but its 436-room south tower won't be open until June 1, according to advertising director Angela Cameron.
Oceans Resorts Inc. of Daytona Beach, which has about 1,600 rooms at eight area lodging facilities, is operating only four locations with about 860 available rooms. The Plaza Resort & Spa on N. Atlantic Avenue, the company's flagship hotel, sustained damage to 180 of its 323 rooms but is fully operational, according to Oceans Resorts vice president Douglas Kosarek.
Kosarek said the lack of available rooms has prompted a rarely seen level of cooperation among local hoteliers, with many referring guests they could no longer accommodate to competing inns.
"It caused us to make adjustments that we never made before," Kosarek said. "It's been really neat seeing the community really did come together."
The shortage of rooms, coupled with the scheduling of this year's Daytona 500 during the holiday weekend of Washington's Birthday, has caused headaches for travel agencies, requiring them to hunt down rooms further afield than usual. Jean Derenthal, district manager for the American Automobile Association in Tampa, said AAA travel agents have had difficulties booking Daytona Beach-bound customers at facilities in Orlando.
"The latest reservation was (Tuesday) afternoon," Derenthal said. "We had to put them by the airport in Orlando."
Premiere Sports Travel of Cary, N.C., had booked 50 rooms at a Daytona Beach Shores hotel months in advance, only to be told in mid November they would not be available, Premiere Sports partner Brian Wilder said.
"We had pretty much had everyone booked," Wilder said. "We had sold the packages, and then they told us, "we're not going to be able to open.' "
Wilder said the hotel's staff referred them to an establishment a few blocks away. The rates were higher, and Premiere absorbed the difference so as not to alienate customers, he said.
"It'll be a different type of Daytona 500," Wilder said. "The fan that drives down there at the last minute -- that's not going to happen."
Meanwhile, Gary Brown said he is happy his Sun Viking Lodge is operating at full capacity and ready for the race.
"That was the absolute time that I had to be open," he said.
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