Business as Usual

Business is back to normal in Southern California. And for the hotel and tourism industry, it never really went away despite devastating fires in late October.

During the week of the fires in San Diego County, beginning Oct. 21, occupancy decreased 6.2 percent from the year before, according to the Smith Travel Research reports. But the following week, occupancy was up 8.7 percent from the previous year.

“That was the challenge of the national press,” San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO David Peckinpaugh says. “They painted a picture of widespread devastation. It didn't really play out that way. The week of the fire had some significant impacts, but on the tourism sector there was virtually no impact after the two-day crush of evacuees. From our perspective, we were fine.”

That's not to say it wasn't a tense week for some hotels.

Donn Hooker, in his first month on the job as general manager of Embassy Suites Temecula Valley Wine Country, faced many challenges.

The 176-suite hotel was around 65 percent full on Monday, Oct. 22, the day the fires really started spreading. By that afternoon, the hotel was completely filled and evacuees were still arriving by the carload. And they weren't alone.

Hooker says after the evacuation orders, people sometimes had 15 minutes to leave their homes, only enough time to grab important memorabilia, paperwork and pets.

“The first check-in had a golden retriever,” Hooker says. “We had to start changing procedures. Some of these people were our neighbors. Two of our employees had to evacuate. It was all very personalized.”

The golden retriever, as well as many more dogs, cats and birds, were allowed to stay. Once all the suites were filled, the hotel put rollaway beds, foam cots and linens in the two small ballrooms and people were invited to camp out.

“A lot of really good decisions were made while standing in the lobby,” Hooker says.

When the fire department and highway patrol called to see if they could get a quick nap to refresh, Hooker asked the guests in the ballrooms if they minded giving up their spots for a few hours. No one did, and the men in uniform got their rest and a free breakfast.

Hooker points to the fact that during the entire week the staff didn't receive one complaint as evidence of how everyone came together.

“We charged the standard rates as if we weren't going to fill,” says Hooker, adding that those without rooms weren't charged at all. “Financial expectations were already met, we did not expect to be full and we were. There was no reason to be greedy. These people were our neighbors.”

The fires were under control by the end of the week and occupancy was still close to 100 percent the following week. Business slowed down in November, but Hooker says things have been back to normal since Thanksgiving.

The Embassy Suites was prepared to evacuate, but never had to. The Rancho Bernardo Inn in San Diego wasn't as lucky.

Sunday night the resort offered extremely reduced rates and brought in evacuees who were staying in local gymnasiums. At about 4:30 a.m. Monday, through reverse 911 calls, General Manager John Gates got word that the Rancho Bernardo Inn would have to evacuate.

The staff called every room and then managers split up and went room to room with master keys to make sure everyone knew of the orders. They used chalk to mark the doors of each room they entered. By around 7 a.m., the resort was completely empty minus Gates and a small crew of staff, some of whom had been evacuated from their own homes and had nowhere else to go.

“There was a sense of urgency, but it was very calm,” Gates says. “Some people were upset, but when they smelled the smoke and saw the fires, they understood.”

The Inn helped find lodging at nearby hotels for all guests and the evacuees who had just arrived weren't charged.

Gates and his remaining crew manned the phones, watched the property and helped provide food and drink to firefighters and police who used the resort as a hub. The fire damaged homes adjacent to the golf course, but it never got any closer thanks to the course's sprinklers.

The 287-room Rancho Bernardo Inn, which was around 60 percent full Sunday, Oct., 21, was closed until Wednesday at 5 p.m. Gates estimates the resort lost around $200,000 in revenue. Business slowly filtered back, with more reduced rates still being offered, and occupancy was somewhere between 40 and 50 percent that following weekend, well below the 80-plus percent norm. Gates says by mid-November everything was back to normal.

“People have a short memory,” he says.

The San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau, the California Travel and Tourism Commission and the California Hotel & Lodging Association helped spread the word that everything was open through advertising and public relations. Only a few hotels had to evacuate and none suffered serious damage. The high winds were the biggest problem for most.

“Once the fires were out, they were out. Things got back to normal very quickly,” California Hotel & Lodging Association President and CEO Jim Abrams says. “I know the industry stepped up very well. Hotels opened up and let pets in, froze and reduced rates, gave specials. They knew these were people from their own community that needed help.”

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