By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Tall Stacks not only will bring a world-class musical lineup and arts events to Cincinnati's shore. Hotels also are counting on the five-day festival as the most important tourist draw this year.
Many downtown hotels have been booked for months. Even some suburban properties are beginning to see visitors trickle into the area for the five-day festival.
Tall Stacks adds to what has been a much-improved 2003 for many Cincinnati hoteliers.
Greater Cincinnati hotels enjoyed a 3.7 percent increase in average occupancy rate to 55.9 percent through August, according to Tennessee-based Smith Travel Research. Average room rates also increased slightly.
The Smith Travel survey of more than 6,100 rooms downtown or near downtown show hotels are filling more rooms at more expensive rates than a year ago. Downtown hotel occupancy increased 5 percent to 54.8 percent. The average room rate increased nearly 2 percent to $76.82.
Suburban properties from Covington to Mason are reporting stronger years, too.
"Things are moving in the right direction," said Michel A. Sheer, who manages the 561-room Hilton Netherland Plaza hotel. "If you look at the cities we compete against, we are gaining considerably more market share than they are."
Not that Cincinnati's hospitality industry has solved its problems. Some hoteliers say the gains are a mirage made possible only because occupancy levels dipped so low over the past two years. Cincinnati's hotel industry was hit particularly hard in 2001 because of the riots and the Comair pilots strike, as well as the nationwide hotel woes triggered by economic recession and terrorist strikes.
"We are experiencing occupancies that are better than last year, but you also must keep in mind we are among the worst occupancies in the country," said Rob Gauthier, general manager of the Millennium Hotel downtown.
The U.S. average hotel occupancy rate was 60.8 percent through August, a decline of less than 1 percent from the year before.
Gauthier said Cincinnati's main challenge is to drum up business through tourism and special events because the city's convention business shows few signs of improvement. The next two years will be a major struggle as construction begins on the $160 million expansion of the convention center. While expansion could yield more bookings for 2006 and beyond, construction disruption has the potential to chase away conventions.
Because of weak convention bookings, promoting tourism has been a top priority of the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau. The bureau and area hotels offered special packages for out-of-town visitors for Tall Stacks, the Reds and other special events.
Yet Gauthier warns tourism could struggle in 2004. This year's results were buoyed by an estimated half million out-of-town visitors for the inaugural season of Great American Ball Park. Others booked hotels at bargain rates.
Some managers say another key component of the hotel business - business travel - showed improvement this year. Business travelers are important for hotels because they tend to arrive mid-week and pay higher room rates.
"The corporate traveler is returning a little more," said Al Eastman, director of sales and marketing for the Crowne Plaza Hotel downtown.
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