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Jury Is Out on Whether El Nino
Affected Coastal California Hotel Business

By Gray Scott, The Business Press, Ontario, Calif.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

May 25--On the surface, it's hard to tell whether El Nino is a melodrama villain with upturned mustache -- or, as some suggest, simply a Californian term for "rain." For instance: Did El Nino weather really hurt local hotel occupancy?

A report by the Lodging Research Network implies it did. And last week, a local newspaper ran a story on El Nino impacts on Ontario area hotels that shared the same conclusion. Yet the data -- and the causes of some occupancy declines -- varied widely from city to city.

Whether El Nino was friend, foe or inconsequential depended a lot on the geographic scope of the report. Looked at nationally, the Pacific region suffered a 2% drop in occupancy during the first quarter thanks to El Nino, according to the Lodging Research Network, an Internet-based creation of Coopers & Lybrand LLP.

But the Pacific region is huge. It includes not just California, but Oregon, Washington, Hawaii and Alaska. In California specifically, the occupancy drop was 1.1%, according to Smith Travel Research, the Tennessee firm that compiled the data cited by the Lodging Research Network.

And on an even smaller scale, Inland Empire occupancy rates actually increased about 2.5%, according to Chuck Ross, vice president at Smith Travel Research. That doesn't mean the local newspaper report was wrong, however.

Occupancy at major hotels around Ontario International Airport did decline, according to Steve Winning, president of the Greater Ontario Hotel & Motel Association. Winning, who is also general manager of the Ontario Airport Hilton, said his own hotel lost some weekend business because some soccer tournaments were rained out. He blames that on El Nino.

But there were other reasons for the decline, which climbed as high as 6.7% in January, local hoteliers said. "Part of it was that there is a little higher supply (of rooms) than there was the previous year" owing to the additions of new hotels like the Extended Stay America on Inland Empire Boulevard, Winning said.

The Marriott Hotel Ontario said its first quarter was relatively flat. "I wouldn't say (figures) have been up, but I wouldn't say they've been down, either," Marriott general manager Steve Goldman said. "I think the whole market might be a little softer than last year." Goldman isn't blaming El Nino, however. "In our meetings, it hasn't really come up as a topic of conversation," he said. The weather phenomenon had more of an impact in coastal cities and in Northern California, he said. "I know for a fact that our Northern California hotel business has been down because of (El Nino)."

San Bernardino certainly wasn't adversely affected by El Nino -- it was one of the areas compensating for Ontario's losses. Hotels in San Bernardino had an occupancy jump in the first quarter of almost 6%, according to Pat Caffery, chairman and acting director of the San Bernardino Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"I would say that's probably an influx of business (travel). You've got a lot of business (traffic) coming into the area. El Nino has no impact on that," said Caffery, who is also the general manager of San Bernardino's La Quinta Inn. Caffery said his own hotel had about 10% more traffic last quarter than it did during the same period last year. "And I know quite a few of the other hotels in town have had a good year, too," he said.

Caffery thinks a contributing factor to La Quinta's increase was a remodeling completed last year. The Marriott Hotel Ontario is on the verge of a remodeling of its own. Scheduled to start next week, the $5.5 million renovation will include repainting, new carpeting and furniture, and the installation of another phone line in each room so guests can surf the Internet and still receive phone calls, general manager Goldman said.

"The rooms need to be brought up to Marriott standards and up to industry standards. This should have been done a couple of years ago," he said. The renovation effort is scheduled to tackle 100 rooms per month, and should be finished up in three months, he added.

Just as the Marriott is adding another phone line to each room to accomodate computer users, the nearby Ontario Airport Hilton added a new amenity for its high-tech guests in January. It's a recharging station for electric vehicles, and it's free to guests and visitors.

Now, don't rush -- there probably won't be a line. "It's been used a little bit, but minimally," general manager Winning said.

General Motors Corp. paid to install 11 of the devices in Southern California Hilton Hotels in preparation for the inevitable. By 2003, 10% of new vehicles sold in California can't pollute, and electric vehicles are one of the top ideas being explored to comply with the requirement. To use the recharger, car owners need a dedicated 240-volt, 40-amp circuit -- oh, and an electric vehicle.

  (c) 1998, The Business Press, Ontario, Calif. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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