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The Daily Tar Heel

Tourism up in Orange County

After cutting prices and marketing their brand during the recession, local hotels are beginning to see a brighter future.

Hotel occupancy has gone up by 10.8 percent year-to-date — but those numbers are still below pre-recession highs.

“While we didn’t project aggressive growth this year, we have exceeded our expectations in the hotel industry,” said Jack Schmidt, director of sales and marketing for the Carolina Inn.
So far in 2011, occupancy in Orange County hotels has stood at 64.6 percent, 1.4 percentage points below the 2007 high.

Schmidt believes the recovery from the recent recession is partly responsible for the area’s sudden improvement. The tourism industry took a hit in 2009 and 2010 with a six to nine percent drop in revenues.

Laurie Paolicelli, executive director of the Chapel Hill and Orange County Visitors Bureau, also attributed the recent rise in numbers to the recovery.

“Education travel was frozen, government travel was frozen and consumers tightened their belts. On top of this economic slow-down, many new hotels and options opened in surrounding counties, giving travelers more options,” Paolicelli said. “Add to that increased gas prices and we had a perfect storm.”

Paolicelli said the Visitors Bureau — which is supported by the Orange County Board of Commissioners with help from Chapel Hill — kept a strong marketing program in place, reminding travelers of what the town had to offer.

Town hotels also offered various deals to help bring in customers when the industry was taking a hit. The Carolina Inn would run 72-hour sales or special Internet discounts for thrifty travelers.

“We depend a lot on the loyalty of returning customers,” said Barbara Leedy. sales manager at the Hampton Inn. “We do everything in our power to remind students we’re here for their traveling needs, and we go above and beyond to really try to be personable when it comes to working with our guests.”

While state budget cuts meant the University could not bring as many visitors, it has remained the biggest draw.

“Visiting friends and relatives make a large portion of our visitors’ business,” Paolicelli said.
Some of the University’s events consistently keep local hotels packed. Leedy said sporting events kept business high.

“During football games, we sell out no matter how the team is doing.”

But sporting events aren’t the only factors bringing in the tourists.

Paolicelli attributed much of the occupancy surge to parents visiting students, weddings and reunions — travel that happened less frequently during the recession.

The Hampton Inns in the area saw seven weddings last weekend alone.

“We’ve seen such a turn around that we’re about to break ground on a fourth hotel on Main Street in Carrboro since the economy is doing so well,” Leedy said.

With growing success in the hotel industry right now, hotel managers said graduation will be a coveted date.

“It’s been a great feeling to see people come back to Chapel Hill,” Leedy said.

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