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News for the Hospitality Executive

Hotel Managers Have Learned New and Unfamiliar
 Roles While Housing Katrina Evacuees
By Suzanne Marta, The Dallas Morning News
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Oct. 27, 2005 - ALLEN -- At the Amerihost Inn, they're stocking extra soap and shampoo in the rooms and ordering more milk to serve families who have fled the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast.

The operators of Dallas-based Motel 6 and Studio 6 are budgeting for extra wear and tear, because full-time residents are tougher on things than business travelers.

For hotels across North Texas, hurricanes Katrina and Rita have filled thousands of rooms, boosting occupancy levels and injecting unanticipated revenue into the market.

But the extra business has also forced them to adapt in a variety of ways.

Managers have learned to play new and unfamiliar roles -- offering informal counseling, shuttle services around town and coordinating community groups offering food, clothing and other basic necessities.

Hoteliers say hosting evacuees has helped them to form better bonds with their staff and ties to the community -- something that could translate into more business.

"It really put us on the map with the local community," said Mohamed Elmougy, whose Pyramids Hospitality owns the Amerihost in Allen. "I couldn't pay to get that."

Indeed, the hurricanes have given Texas a chance to showcase its hospitality. "It helped with the image for Dallas as a friendly and hospitable place," said Phillip Jones, chief executive for the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau, adding that his staff has fielded dozens of e-mails and phone calls from meeting planners and travel and meetings trade publications. "Hopefully, it will encourage people to take another look at Dallas in the future."

Though significant, the rise in hotel demand isn't as big as many had initially believed.

Nearly 9,500 rooms in North Texas and 75,000 nationwide have been occupied by evacuees over the last two months, said Dave Hurst, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Austin.

Initially, the American Red Cross had estimated 12,000 rooms were in use in the area by evacuees, though the relief agency later said its calculations had been faulty.

FEMA, which took over for the short-term lodging program for the Red Cross on Tuesday, had no estimate for the number of evacuees currently staying in hotels.

Occupancy in the Dallas area rose to 69.4 percent in September, the most recent figures available, a gain of 11.5 percentage points from the same month last year, according to Smith Travel Research.

The unexpected business for Dallas-area hotels filled rooms during what was normally a slow period, said Michael Lynch, general manager for the Embassy Suites Love Field and president of the Hotel Association of Greater Dallas.

But in some cases, Mr. Lynch said, corporate travelers canceled September trips to the area because "they just didn't want to get into the fray of the storm."

There have been times in the last two months that more than a third of the rooms at the Allen Amerihost were booked by hurricane evacuees, Pyramids' Mr. Elmougy said.

Occupancy, which is typically around 60 percent this time of year, surged to 85 percent.

Staffers at the Amerihost have worked to offer some comforts of home, preparing grits during the first few days and getting to know each guest by name.

Housekeeper Shelia Smith frequently comes by on her days off to help evacuees get to the DART light rail station at Parker Road, or do other errands that they can't get to otherwise.

"Where do you want to go, McKinney?" said Ms. Smith, who was sitting in the lobby area planning a car-shopping trip with Michelle Williams.

"It doesn't matter, I just need something to take me from point A to point B," said Ms. Williams, who is from New Orleans.

Soon, Robin Hill arrived and said hello before checking in with the front desk staff.

Twice a week, Ms. Hill and three other women from First Baptist Church of Allen pick up and deliver clothes to evacuees who can't get to a Laundromat themselves.

"Did you come to get the clothes?" evacuee Barbara Holder said, spying Ms. Hill sipping a cup of coffee in the lobby. "I missed you on Monday."

The two women chatted, while a friend ferried a large plastic garbage bag of clothes to the back of Ms. Hill's minivan.

"What's the latest I can bring these back to you?" Ms. Hill asked, running through her schedule for the day.

"As late as you need, honey," Ms. Holder replied.

"You know we aren't going anywhere."

Across Texas and the Southeast, hotel operators are working to juggle their regular business traffic and weekend tourists with the hurricane evacuees who now call their guest rooms home.

Of Accor North America's 99 Motel 6 and Studio 6 properties in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and parts of Alabama, about 10,000 evacuees have become tenants, representing about 30 percent of guests.

It's a difficult situation for evacuees and operators.

Most hotels weren't built for long stays. Many, like Motel 6, don't offer any kind of food service or even refrigerators in the room.

The extra business doesn't come without costs.

Long hotel stays can take a toll on a hotel rooms designed for short visits.

Bedding and other so-called "soft goods" will have to be replaced, and some rooms will have to be completely renovated, said Rick Johnson, who oversees Motel 6 branded properties in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and part of Alabama.

"That could eat into that additional business that we got," Mr. Johnson said.

For many hotels, hosting evacuees also meant extending emotional support.

Mark Kaiser, general manager of the Adam's Mark in downtown Dallas, worked with staffers on how to respond and offered a sympathetic ear to evacuees who called his hotel home.

"I've been in a closet under the stairwell holding the door shut, so I was personally able to tell them that I had been there," Mr. Kaiser said, speaking of his experience working in the Virgin Islands.


On average, FEMA is paying $63.35 per night for each room.

However, room rates vary among hotels.

Some are using rates negotiated with the Red Cross, while others are applying their government rates.

But any revenue is a plus for rooms that might otherwise go empty.


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Copyright (c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News

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