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Charlottesville area hotels see fall surge

Thanks to football games and folks frolicking in the fall foliage, October turned into one of the best months for Charlottesville-area hotels since the pandemic began, according to occupancy data and other revenue information.

Official numbers are not out yet, but weekly information provided to the Virginia Tourism Corporation by STR, a global firm that provides insights into the hospitality industry, shows Charlottesville-area hotel occupancy was at around 75% in October, nearly selling out most weekends. This area is projected to have the third highest occupancy in the state for the month, behind west Richmond and Petersburg.

That’s high for the last 20 months, but occupancy is still not back to pre-pandemic levels, and hospitality and tourism industry members worry how staffing shortages will affect hotels long-term.

October had two University of Virginia home football games, where available hotel rooms on Friday and Saturday were more than 95% full.

Average daily room rates have been higher than typical this fall. In September, the average daily rate was about $155, up from around $140 pre-pandemic. For the 28-day period from Oct. 3 to Oct. 30, rates averaged around $174, with weekend rates averaging more than $245.

Russ Cronberg, the general manager at Boar’s Head Resort, said hotels are selling rooms at rates “they’ve never seen before.”

“Part of that was an effort that I know we tried for a little while, but then we’ve since tempered our rates, to just slow down demand,” he said at a recent board meeting of the tourism board. “That actually didn’t work. We were thinking we would be able to slow it down, and people are, especially in the leisure-transient community, they’re traveling and they’re spending money at all kinds of highs.”

Courtney Cacatian, the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau’s executive director, said the tourism bureau has advertised throughout the pandemic with a “Come when you’re ready” message.

“There’s so much pent-up demand for travel, that everyone has been sitting at home thinking ‘Where can I go and where have I missed out?’” she said in an interview. “I think we’re seeing a lot of that in September through October and into the first part of November, at this point.”

UVa proved to be a boon for area hotels throughout the fall. When students moved in in late August, occupancy for that Wednesday and Thursday was above 90% on both days.

And earlier this year, in April, UVa students helped out the occupancy rate as well when they were quarantining because of possible COVID exposure, driving it up to 74.9%.

The second weekend in October, Cacatian said, the Charlottesville Fall Classic Half Marathon and 10K also drew people to the area, and pent-up demand for weddings has led to less traditional offerings this fall.

“We’re finding a lot of weekends where you would have seen one wedding per venue, places trying to double book and spilling out into the week,” she said. “I’ve also seen leisure visitors extending their stay into the week, because average daily rate is high, especially on the weekends right now, people can get a more affordable hotel room during the week.”

Many hotels haven’t been able to open all their rooms — especially during the week — due to staffing levels, Cacatian said. The occupancy rate for October 2019 was 78.2%.

“It’s not a lack of demand, which is why you’re seeing those high average daily rates, because the demand is definitely there,” she said. “It’s just a lack of supply right now due to the shortage in the workforce.”

Due to the “make-up and the wealth” of people in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, Cronberg said it was already challenging to find staff pre-pandemic.

“It’s definitely incredibly more challenging now, just from my perspective,” he said. “At the beginning of September, we had 97 positions open at the resort. Typically, annually we would fluctuate up and down around 15 to 20.”

When he started in 2017, he said, housekeeping staff made $8.50 an hour. Those positions are now up to $17 an hour.

“I am so happy that we’re at that point where they are making a better wage for them and their families,” Cronberg said. “But I also know that myself as an operator, and our staff, especially our revenue generating staff, we’re going to continue to have to push for our overall revenues to be able to continue to pay for these increases in labor. That’s the challenge ahead of us.”

Due to the labor issues, Cronberg said Boar’s Head has had to “shut down selling rooms for several dates in the past few months,” which has resulted in “leaving north of $100,000 to $200,000 in top line revenue on the table for our property alone, and I know that we’re not the only ones that have done it.”

Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association, said some hotel brands have started to offer signing bonuses or referral bonuses to entice people to work for them.

“In some cases, they have modified the daily housekeeping,” he said. “Some of the brands have allowed their franchisees to not necessarily offer daily housekeeping. So, you might stay for two or three days and you don’t get your room cleaned.”

Charlottesville’s success can be attributed to “leisure customers,” he said, which have also helped the Richmond area this fall. Youth sports groups are also adding to Richmond’s high occupancy.

Across the state, some markets are still struggling, Terry said, including the Northern Virginia market.

“That’s really based upon the lack of corporate travel, group meetings,” he said. “Government travel hasn’t really rebounded. I think it’s going to take quite a while for us to see a lot of recovery there.”

Cacatian said the CACVB is working to ramp up advertising for the winter months, when tourism is typically down.

“We have a lot of experiences here that are a little bit more intimate in the winter,” she said. “Where you may have a lot of people going to a winery during peak time, it’s a great time to sit down and have a conversation with the winemaker and do a tasting that’s a little bit more relaxed, and feel like you’re getting a more exclusive experience for for less cost than you would during a peak time.”


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