Advance hotel bookings are stronger than they were at this time last year, but aren’t quite up to 2008 levels yet, local hoteliers say.
“Our booking pace is ahead of last year. It needs to be, because last year was certainly an off year,” said Cindy Hollowood, general manager for the Holiday Inn. Advance bookings are up about 20 percent, she said.
“Hotels are a good barometer of the state of the economy,” said Darryl Leggieri, director of sales and marketing for the Saratoga Hilton. “If business travelers are starting to travel once again, we start to see that in the hotels, and that means there’s a little more confidence out there.”
Although bookings for the spring and summer are up, August bookings are still a little slow, said Rob Beck, general manager for the Inn at Saratoga. He believes that’s because of the uncertainty about thoroughbred racing in the wake of the New York Racing Association saying it is running out of money and contracts for video lottery terminals at Aqueduct Racetrack falling through.
“It is looming in the back of everybody’s heads,” Beck said, “And I think the reservations kind of show that. We still have a lot on the books, but it just isn’t on the pace of a couple years back.”
A year and a half after the 123-room Hampton Inn and Suites became the newest city hotel to open in the summer of 2008, opinions differ on whether there are too many hotel rooms in the city or just enough.
There are 2,756 rooms in the greater Saratoga area, according to the Saratoga Convention and Tourism Bureau.
Daniel Murphy, president of the New York State Hospitality and Tourism Association, said there’s no guideline for when a city has enough hotel rooms.
“There is no real rule of thumb, other than the fact that prudent businessmen and -women understand what the given occupancy levels are in Saratoga,” he said. New hotels are wise to locate near the City Center so they can serve groups booking conventions there after the expansion is completed, Murphy added.
“I think that speaks to the general optimism in the marketplace, to the future of business in Saratoga,” he said.
Hollowood said the city’s off-season hotel occupancy is at a little more than 60 percent and during the racing season it’s 90 percent.
So while the six-week season brings good business for everyone, the rest of the year hotels sit almost half-empty.
“To me, that would be an indicator not to develop additional hotel rooms in Saratoga,” she said. “In these economic times, we are all feeling the pinch.”
Last year in the Albany-Schenectady region, which includes Saratoga Springs, rooms sold dropped by 5.1 percent, Murphy said. Revenue decreased by 11.5 percent.
That’s better than the rest of the state, which saw a 2.9 percent decrease in the number of rooms sold but took a 22 percent hit in revenue.
Developers always study whether the market can support a new hotel and won’t build unless they believe it can, Beck said.
“It’s a free competitive market,” he said.
Beck isn’t sure how the new hotels have affected business at the Inn at Saratoga: “It’s hard to answer the question, really, because of the economy.”
But Hollowood thinks each new chain hotel in the city makes life harder for the small independent hotels and bed and breakfasts.
“People tend to look for a familiar name like a Holiday Inn or a Hampton Inn. Unfortunately for the independents, that works against them,” she said.
The Hilton’s Leggieri said more rooms attract more people, especially in group bookings like conventions and association meetings.
“In my opinion, anytime we have more rooms in the downtown area, it’s only going to help us attract larger groups,” he said. “For us, it’s making us more competitive, helping us reach an audience that was once not available to us.”
The Hilton does much of its business in group sales thanks to its position adjoining the Saratoga Springs City Center. If the Hilton gets a booking request and can’t handle the whole group, it sends the overflow to another hotel, Leggieri said.
“We recommend all of our hotel partners, and then the group will decide on what the best fit is for them,” Leggieri said.
Last year was tough for most hotels in the city, but the Saratoga Hilton met its budget numbers, Leggieri said. That’s in large part because the group business that is the hotel’s bread and butter typically books far in advance.
“They were committed to coming to Saratoga,” Leggieri said.
Group bookings look good again this year, he added: “I’m optimistic that we will experience another solid year.”
Hoteliers are hopeful that the expanded City Center and completed GlobalFoundries plant will bring more occupancy.
Beck said, “Maybe we’ve just got to kind of hold our breath a little bit.”
Beck said the Internet has helped independent hotels and bed and breakfasts compete with chain operations.
A search for “Saratoga hotels” brings up various directories, as well as individual sites for the Saratoga Hilton and Longfellow’s and ads for the Inn at Saratoga, Saratoga Arms and the Holiday Inn on the first page.
“Somebody’s going to go onto Expedia and they’re going to be able to find a good rate from us,” Beck said. “I think that has, in the last 10 years, really brought the independents on a more level playing field with the chains.”
Indeed, that travel Web site lists the Inn at Saratoga with rooms at $72 a night among its deals for the second week of April.
Many local hotels advertise good deals in the off-season, helping to draw in more occupants but at the expense of the hotels’ bottom line.
“In order to protect their occupancy, they had to break rate,” Murphy said. “In a down economy, that is certainly not an unusual phenomenon. Retailers, restaurateurs also do it.”
Murphy was one of the original modern hoteliers in Saratoga. He opened the Ramada Renaissance, which is now the Saratoga Hilton, in 1984.
He ran the hotel, later a Sheraton, until 1995 and still lives in Saratoga Springs.