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Rooms are available, but they'll cost you

While most major hotels are booked, independent places still have beds at higher-than-normal rates.

By MARK ALBRIGHT

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 25, 2001


Tampa Bay area hotels may be heavily booked for the Super Bowl weekend, but there are still vacancies to be found out there.

On Wednesday, the Inn on the Bay in Dunedin, a vintage 1950s mom and pop motel typically filled with retirees in search of peace and quiet this time of year, had a standard waterfront room open for $189.

A three-bedroom condo in the Sand Dollar in Indian Shores could be yours for $1,173 for a full week rental beginning Saturday.

At the Bilmar Beach Resort in Treasure Island, last-minute cancellations opened four standard beachfront rooms priced at $209 to $259 a night.

"We've got four or five rooms, but availability changes almost hour by hour," said Tom Clair, sales director for the 172-unit Bilmar.

Thanks to cancellations, there are vacant rooms in dozens of hotels, but they are few and far between, local hoteliers say. And few hotels maintain a waiting list.

The St. Petersburg Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, (727) 464-7200 or floridasbeach.com on the Internet, keeps a list of up-to-the-minute vacancies in Pinellas County. ("Hotel rooms still available, click here!" the Web site says.) In Hillsborough, officials said hotels are so fully booked that guests should make calls directly to smaller hotels likely to have openings.

The Super Bowl Task Force fan housing toll-free line, (800) 922-1681, was referring people to a handful of scattered vacancies in Pinellas on Wednesday, but more often suggesting digs in Lakeland, Winter Haven or Orlando that cost $100 less a night and do not require a multinight stay. Virtually all Pinellas and Hillsborough hotels are requiring guests to pay for a three- or four-night minimum stay even if they check out sooner.

The average Super Bowl visitor spends 3.3 days in the host city. Hotels slapped on the minimum stay requirement because they normally are full this time of year, so the Super Bowl was displacing many of their annual regulars. While the hotels have been able to jack up their charges beyond peak seasonal rates, they also are increasing their occupancy by about 15 percent for a single weekend.

Landing the game also meant most of the regions' big hotels agreed to hold a majority of their rooms in a block reserved for the NFL for the past five years. Unsold rooms were returned for the hotels to sell only last August. The official fan housing line is staffed by a hired call center in Chicago and handles only properties with 15 or more units that are on the Sabre Reservation System. That leaves out many small, local properties and short-term vacancies that hotels fill themselves in the daily course of business.

"Normally we consider anything above 93 percent occupancy to be effectively sold out," said Carole Ketterhagen, director of the Pinellas visitors bureau. "But we're never completely sold out. People's plans change. They can't get a flight. They get sick and cancel at the last minute."

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