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Tampa Bay Area Hoteliers Thankful for First Time in Months:
Bookings Improving and Absence of Oil News Leads to Cautious Optimism

By Ileana Morales and Danny Valentine, St. Petersburg Times, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Nov. 23, 2010--Hotel owners around Tampa Bay haven't had much to be thankful for this past year.

Tampa and St. Petersburg had their coldest winters ever, chilling area tourism and freezing hotel reservations. Then came a summer of oil fears and unbearable heat.

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, hotel executives are upbeat for the first time in months about filling rooms during what promises to be a mild winter.

"There is a note of cautious optimism," said David Downing, deputy director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the county's tourism agency.

It's a recent change in attitude, he said, which he attributes to a spate of good weather and absence of oil news in the "daily media maelstrom."

Keith Overton, chief operating officer for TradeWinds Island Resorts in St. Pete Beach, said hotel bookings are still down, but reservations for conferences and conventions are coming in at a steady pace and that should eventually trickle down to bookings for family vacations.

"Given the oil spill and everything we went through," Overton said, "I think we're fortunate to be where we are."

Royal North Beach, a condominium-style hotel in Clearwater, has been hit hard since Thanksgiving last year. Occupancy is down about 50 percent, said manager Kathy Sarno. She's had to give away rooms and lower rates.

And while the rest of the year still looks slow, she sees reservations picking up after the Christmas season.

"I'm thankful for the beautiful weather, I'm thankful that we don't have oil, and I'm thankful for the loyal customers that keep coming back regardless," Sarno said.

This winter is unlikely to be anything like last year's, said Mike Clay, chief meteorologist for Bay News 9.

It was the coldest winter on record for both Tampa and St. Petersburg. On Jan. 11, the coldest day, temperatures dipped to 25 degrees in Tampa and 33 degrees in St. Petersburg.

"Last year's was so far out of the spectrum and unlike anything we've ever seen," Clay said.

For now, Overton is just happy about the forecast for warmer weather.

He said he's still offering amenities, discounts rates and some free nights to fill 800 rooms between TradeWinds' two St. Pete Beach hotels.

Thanksgiving reservations are down 3 percent from last year, but Overton said the goal for group reservations in 2011 is already ahead of schedule.


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Copyright (c) 2010, St. Petersburg Times, Fla.

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