Y’all come – and stay awhile

The travel industry hopes lower prices at the pump
will mean more heads in beds and feet under seats.

Gasoline prices fell dramatically during the final days of 2008, but it wasn’t enough to help the hospitality industry. Nationally, occupancy rates fell to about 53% during November and December — about five percentage points below normal. In North Carolina, most of the evidence was anecdotal, but recession seemed to discourage tourists from traveling to the state’s top attractions, despite special deals offered by restaurants and hotels. Charlie Shelton is co-owner of Shelton Vineyards winery in Dobson as well as a nearby hotel and restaurant.

BNC: Several large hotels have been announced or opened during the past year or so. Is the state nearing saturation?

Shelton: It depends on where you open. The bigger cities probably have been saturated. In our area, two have opened in the last 24 months. I don’t see any others opening anytime soon. I don’t think we’re oversaturated, even though there’s probably a surplus of rooms. In the summertime, when it’s busier, we probably have a little shortage, but you can’t just build for a few months out of the year.

Restaurants are hurting. How can they turn things around?

Until the economy gets better and people have more disposable income, there probably isn’t a whole lot that can be done. But at the fast-food restaurants, from what I understand, business is up.

With more companies using teleconferencing, is business travel still growing?

We do have quite a few people whose businesses come here and rent the hotel and the meeting halls for their planning sessions and retreats. We still have our loyal business customers. We gain a few each week. That might be different in the bigger cities.

What can the state do to promote the hospitality industry?

One of my pet projects is to figure out how we can get businesses in the state, the university and community-college system and government agencies that have socials to pour North Carolina wine — not some wine that’s imported from a foreign country. Because after all, it does help North Carolina if we can keep that business here in this state and help create jobs.

Would it make a real difference?

Yes. When you go to a convention center, look at the bottles to see how many are from the state. Well, none. It’s very difficult to get there because most of it is from some foreign country that’s been imported at a reduced price. If we got that accomplished, we could go to work on Virginia, Tennessee and Ohio, places like that. We get a lot of business from Ohio now with people stopping here to go south or north.

How successful has your hotel been in generating business for the vineyard?

Our hotel is about 2.5 miles from the winery. We’re getting a tremendous number of people from Columbia, Greenville, S.C., the Spartanburg area, Raleigh, Cary and the Charlotte area. They want to get out of town for the weekend, and they come up and stay a couple of days at the hotel. We’re getting more and more business travelers that like to stop here because they can visit the winery, pick up some wine or go to the wine bar and pick it up there.

What’s the outlook for the rest of 2009?

Gas prices will be down, and that will help the travel industry, particularly people that normally go south or north at different times of the year. You’ll see that come back a little bit.