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Hotels keep the pillows fluffed and coffee hot

The war hasn't cramped the local lodging industry as much as once feared since the local customer base is still strong.

By MELIA BOWIE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 30, 2003


One day before the nation went to war, the Clarion Hotel & Conference Center in New Port Richey took its first hit.

Sixty reservations lost in one fell swoop.

"It was a family reunion and most of the family was coming from New York," said Denise Lauro-McKenzie, director of sales for the hotel.

The family did not want to fly.

"We're expecting tourists to cancel," she said.

It is inevitable, say area hotel officials.

But the blow may not be as bad as some feared. Many area hotels and resorts say local business will cushion the projected fallout from a military campaign.

And although weeklong excursions may be out, day trips to Pasco and throughout Florida could make up for lost revenue.

The Clarion estimates about 80 percent of its customers live within the bay area. Banquets, weddings, anniversaries, ladies meetings and seminars comprise the bulk of their bookings.

At Wesley Chapel's lavish Saddlebrook Resort, fighting in Iraq has not translated into trouble at home.

"It's the economy more than anything," said resort spokesman Al Martinez-Fonts. "There's been a slowdown for the year and a half leading up to the war."

Despite heavy international clientele no one has canceled a reservation at the 800-room retreat yet, he said.

County government said the picture in Pasco is actually brighter than it may seem.

The county relies on a 2 percent tourism/hotel tax to fund promotional events and advertising campaigns that attract visitors to the Suncoast.

But "we are $25,000 ahead of the same four months last year," said county budget director Mike Nurrenbrock.

By the end of the fiscal year in September, officials expect to collect $700,000 via the tax.

Half of the revenue funds promotions and advertising, administrative costs and local events such as Chasco Fiesta in New Port Richey.

The other half goes into a capital account for projects to encourage tourism, such as Saddlebrook Resort's proposed tennis stadium.

The funds do not affect most county services utilized by residents, added Nurrenbrock.

Even enterprises smaller than Saddlebrook -- much smaller enterprises -- are holding their own.

At the Lark Inn in Dade City, the pillows are fluffed, the wood floors gleam and the flowers are fresh. Hot coffee and sumptuous breakfasts are still served to a steady stream of guests.

At first, "we had thought of stockpiling food and we worried about the water," said Jo Larkin, a paralegal who owns the inn with her husband, Bob.

But these are early days of the war. No customers have canceled there, no run on supplies.

Yet.

"I get people from Japan and the U.K.," said Larkin who estimates 15 percent of her business is international. "I have a big group coming over in April."

Between now and then "anything can happen; we all know that."

But Larkin remains optimistic.

So far "nothing has changed,"she said.

-- Melia Bowie covers business in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6229, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6229. Her e-mail address is bowie@sptimes.com .

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