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Houston Hotels Bracing for Another Wave of Evacuees

By Nancy Sarnoff, Houston Chronicle
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News 

September 20, 2005 - Hotels throughout the area are bracing for another wave of evacuees as Hurricane Rita bears down on the Texas coast.

While hotels here are mostly full, largely because of Hurricane Katrina victims, a major convention scheduled for this weekend has been postponed, opening up a large block of rooms downtown and in the Galleria area.

The Texas Association of School Boards and Texas Association of School Administrators decided Tuesday to reschedule their convention for later this year, as the threat of Hurricane Rita looms over this weekend. The conference was expected to have about 11,000 attendees from Friday through Sunday.

Before the onset of Hurricane Rita, Houston-area hotels were near capacity because of the evacuees from Louisiana.

While many have found shelter elsewhere, about 35 percent of the city's hotel rooms are still housing them, said Pat Miller of the Texas Hotel and Lodging Association, who pegs the citywide occupancy rate at between 90 and 95 percent.

About half of the Hyatt Regency Houston Airport's rooms housed hurricane victims until recently. The Hyatt, which is near Bush Intercontinental Airport, is now receiving a "heavy volume of calls" from people worried they'll be displaced by Hurricane Rita, said Stacy Hunt, director of sales.

With the experience of Katrina, "people are definitely reacting quickly to reserve rooms," she said.

While that could be a sign available hotel rooms will become even more scarce, even with the postponement of the convention, there are options. It just may mean a longer drive.

As of last week, Miller said about 25,000 rooms were available statewide, with Dallas having the lion's share. Hotels in San Antonio, Austin, Beaumont and Tyler are nearly full.

Although the postponed convention may free up thousands of rooms here, that doesn't necessarily mean they will all be available this weekend.

"If the storm is coming our way, the hotel may not make them available because they might shut down," said Jordy Tollett, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Indeed, hotels across the city are preparing for the worst.

"We're starting to get water and batteries," said Karl Ewald, manager of the Hampton Inn on the Katy Freeway near Beltway 8. The Hyatt Regency Houston Airport is also making contingency plans.

While Hunt said the hotel didn't flood during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, "if we get strong winds, we want to be prepared."

Those looking in Houston can check more than a dozen hotels that were booked for the convention, including downtown's Doubletree, Hyatt Regency Houston and Crowne Plaza and the Galleria area's Hilton Houston Post Oak, Hotel Derek and InterContinental Houston.

"I expect it's going to free up a couple thousand rooms," said Joan Johnson, president of the Hotel & Lodging Association of Greater Houston.

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Copyright (c) 2005, Houston Chronicle

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