As the off-season of 1999 winds down, hospitality industry sources on St. Thomas say the summer was a good one, thanks in large part to the 5th annual Sinbad's Soul Music Festival, and that the outlook for the coming high season is bright.
Richard Doumeng, president of the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel and Tourism Association, says that while the Sinbad fest was a boost for the major resorts, the smaller hotels and guest houses probably suffered somewhat from the deep discounting by some of the larger properties.
Sam Boynes, owner of L'Hotel Boynes, isn't looking back. His small hotel hosted a reception for a group of travel agents here for the Soul Music Festival. "They loved us," he says.
Boynes is optimistic about the coming season and says his hotel is fully booked for January. He's been talking up his historic property with the airlines and charter operators.
The way to attract more tourists, Boynes believes, is by improving the territory's hospitality image.
"Once we can project a positive, friendly image," he says, "the visitors will return and the money will come."
Doumeng, general manager of Bolongo Bay Beach Club and Villas, says it has been a struggle for the economy to rebound, and "we must now recreate the demand to vacation here." The occupancy rate at most hotels is up 30 percent overall from this time last year, but many hotels have cut their rates in order to attract visitors.
"We have pre-Hugo prices out there," Doumeng says. "Even if our rates are not profitable, we can keep the cash flow coming."
Besides needing hotel rooms, overnight visitors frequent restaurants and bars and go shopping, keeping people employed. "It's important to have 'heads in beds,'" is how the hotelier puts it.
Although lower rates mean less revenue going into the government's revolving fund designated for tourism advertising, Doumeng says the future still looks great. This is thanks in part to charter airline operators, who can deliver tens of thousands of passengers in the five- month high season. GWT, based in Boston, will resume charter flights for the winter season, as will Fun Jet/Sun Country out of Minneapolis. Continental will be flying into St. Thomas daily, and Gulfstream will come aboard as a commuter carrier out of Puerto Rico. Doumeng says there's an outside chance that TWA will also begin serving the territory.
While hoteliers have reason to smile, retailers found the summer season slow.
"With three days a week without a cruise ship in port, the retailers feel the impact," St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce executive director Joe Aubain says. Some shops have maintained a consistent level of business, he says, but other have felt the pinch.
Aubain says many retailers anticipate high season starting a little earlier this fall and foresee some busy days. "We had our ups and down this season," he says, "but many of our hotels maintained up to 70 percent occupancy."
Trudie Prior, general manager of Coral World, says that after the rebuilt marine attraction's first season, it's difficult to predict what lies ahead.
"We were not yet on all cruise ships for tours last season," she says, "and we were still finding our way into various marketing programs." July was surprisingly good at Coral World, she says, "and part of August was a continuation of July."
Attendance has dropped drastically since then "but this is expected," Prior says. She worries that December may pose a problem because of Y2K fears.
"Bookings for the end of the year are slow," she says. "Firms on the mainland are concerned and probably want to keep employees close to home."
Implications of the new millennium notwithstanding, the consensus seems to be that if the territory can stay off the weather maps, it can look forward to a healthy winter season.