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Texas Hotels Work to Accommodate
 Evacuees and Future Guests
By Suzanne Marta, The Dallas Morning News
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Sep. 1, 2005 - Hotels throughout Texas are working to juggle the thousands of hurricane evacuees with guests who booked in advance for the holiday weekend.

In some cases, evacuees are being moved to other area hotels. In others, hotels are trying to find alternative accommodations for incoming guests.

Hurricane evacuees have flooded some 75 hotels between Texas and Northern Florida operated by Irving-based La Quinta Corp.

"Our Houston market is pretty much sold out," said spokeswoman Teresa Ferguson.

Ms. Ferguson said the hotel put together a task force on Tuesday to coordinate efforts and practices among its inn operators. Operators have been asked to work with cash-strapped evacuees on a case-by-case basis to work out payment plans or set up direct billing plans with insurance companies when possible.

"We wanted to make sure there was no price gouging going on," she said.

Some operators have been extending complimentary breakfast operations, and some have sought meal donations from local restaurants.

"People were running out of money and couldn't buy food," Ms. Ferguson said.

In places where hotels are sold out, such as Galveston and Houston, La Quinta has contacted incoming guests to relocate them or let them know they won't have space available.

"We will not displace people who have been affected by the hurricane," Ms. Ferguson said.

The limited-service hotel chain has also been working to relocate its 250 New Orleans-area employees to Arlington until they can return home.

Summer is typically a slow season for Dallas, which meant most area hotels had rooms available for the estimated 1,000 evacuees who arrived this week.

Even after Labor Day, when business travelers get back on the road after the summer break, officials expect to have room to spare.

"We've been running at 53 percent occupancy, so we'll have availability," said Phillip Jones, chief executive of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Dallas tourism officials have been working to update lists of available rooms in the city as it tries to accommodate evacuees. The city is also working to find space for more than 20 conventions that were scheduled for New Orleans this year.

But with 36,000 rooms in the city limits, "we don't anticipate any problems," Mr. Jones said.

Houston's 55,000 hotel rooms have neared sell-out levels as evacuees have poured in seeking shelter. Several of the city's hotels have offered deeply discounted rates, and numerous attractions have extended free or discounted admission to hurricane victims.

As in Dallas, summer is typically slow for Houston hotels, meaning many had rooms to spare for guests fleeing the hurricane. But for some hotels, that changes once business travelers get back on the road after the summer break.

The 1,200-room Hilton Americas-Houston is expecting its hotel to fill with conventioneers staring next week.

Although many evacuees have begun to find alternate housing for the longer-term, many still don't know how long they plan to stay. On Wednesday, about half of the nearly 500 guests scheduled to check out ended up staying, said hotel spokeswoman Anna Drake.

"We're getting a lot of extensions," Ms. Drake said, adding that the hotel won't forcibly relocate any guests who have overstayed their reservation.

Ms. Drake doesn't anticipate it will be a problem because most evacuees will likely move once additional shelters are established in the city. Even at discounted rates, "we know folks aren't going to be able to afford to stay in the hotel for as long as they'll be in Houston," she said.

While most hotels have been able to accommodate evacuees, some hotels had a hard time extending reservations, causing difficulties for operators and guests.

"There's nothing we can do unless people call in and cancel or do something," Andy Patel, manager of a Super 8 Motel in Houston who had to displace one family. "I called nearby hotels, but they seem to say they're all sold out."

Labor Day is typically a busy weekend for Galveston Island, as visitors seek a final summer getaway. But even with the influx of hurricane evacuees, the island still has rooms available for incoming guests, said Paul Schultz, president of the Galveston Hotel & Lodging Association.

Like many communities, Galveston hotels have extended numerous discounts to evacuees and have donated toiletries and other supplies for local shelters.

"This could be us," Mr. Schultz said. "A lot of our business comes from Louisiana, and we want them to remember us and come back."

Mr. Schultz, who oversees three Galveston hotels owned by Landry's Restaurants Inc., said many evacuees have been moving east to be closer to home.

Galveston's Casa Del Mar hotel stopped taking reservations until after the Labor Day weekend to be sure it would have enough rooms for incoming guests.

"It's a very delicate situation," said general manager Theresa Elliott. "I just don't have any more rooms to give."

Staff writers Eric Torbenson and Linda Stewart Ball and The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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