By Gerhard Schneibel

Hotels and motels in Sandy Springs continue to have higher average occupancy rates than those nationwide, statewide and in neighboring jurisdictions despite a slight decline amid the recession.

Kym Hughes, the executive director of the Sandy Springs Hospitality and Tourism Board, said the city has limited hotel rooms in the higher-end hotels that tend to house business travelers.

Sandy Springs has 2,800 rooms in 21 hotels and motels, led by the Westin Atlanta North at Concourse with 371 and the Crowne Plaza near I-285 on Powers Ferry Road with 296.

While the national occupancy rate was down 4 percentage points from November 2007 to November 2008 to 62.1 percent, Sandy Springs’ occupancy declined 3.4 points to 60.7 percent.
“Theoretically, we’ve been right in line with the national average,” Hughes said.

That puts Sandy Springs in a much better position than neighboring jurisdictions and the state. Georgia’s occupancy rate fell 7.5 percentage points to 55.6 percent, while Atlanta was down 6.5 points, Cobb County down 5.9 points, DeKalb County down 5.3 points, and Gwinnett County down 6.8 points.

“I think the biggest shift that they would see would not be a decline in occupancy, but it would be a shift in where they book based on price point. I don’t think this economy will dramatically change their behavior,” Hughes said of Sandy Springs inns and their customers.

Numbers she provided show that Sandy Springs hotels’ average occupancy was as much as 7.2 percentage points more than in neighboring jurisdictions between March and November, excluding April and October, for which numbers were not available.

While Sandy Springs averaged 67 percent occupancy during those months, Gwinnett averaged 59.7 percent, DeKalb 61.1 percent, Cobb 60.8 percent, and Atlanta 61.7 percent. The United States averaged 64.8 percent, and Georgia averaged 58.6 percent.

“The hotels do great during the week because of the businesses. (The city) wanted us to help them get tourists in on the weekends, and we have actually helped with that,” said Dist. 2 Councilwoman Dianne Fries, a member of the tourism board. “What we kind of promote is ‘Hey, come stay up here with us. We’re just a train token away from downtown without all the headache.’ ”

When gas prices were high in October, the tourism board focused on marketing the city as a destination for a “one-tank trip,” Hughes said. With gas prices down but the economy still weak, “there’s not a recipe. We’re marketing differently than we ever have.”

The Hospitality and Tourism Board has three full-time employees, maintains a visitors center in Northside Tower on Roswell Road and places ads in national publications. Its $1.5 million budget represents 31 percent of the city’s revenue from the 7 percent hotel/motel occupancy tax.

The city’s general fund gets 30 percent of that revenue, and 39 percent goes to the Georgia World Congress Center.

“We haven’t seen a huge fall-off of revenue. Obviously, it seems there is going to be some decline in visitors,” Hughes said. “We’re changing our behavior to some degree, but it hasn’t affected us dramatically. There haven’t been the cuts that have affected other people.”

If the Hospitality and Tourism Board’s revenues were affected, “we would just change our advertising and marketing plan for the first and second quarter of 2009,” Hughes said. “We’re conservative. Do I think we’ll bring in more than ($1.5 million)? Yes, I do.”

Once the economy improves, hotel and motel occupancy rates will increase dramatically, Hughes said. “People will have been saving their money because of the economy, and then people will spend.”