'Record demand': Southeast resorts are booming as vacationers drive in

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Noble House Hotels & Resorts' Little Palm Island Resort & Spa in the Florida Keys.
Noble House Hotels & Resorts' Little Palm Island Resort & Spa in the Florida Keys.

Domestic resort destinations across the U.S. are ramping up for what looks to be a record summer season, as occupancies and rates at some Southeast properties are far outpacing 2019 levels.

According to recent data from Inntopia's DestiMetrics, occupancy for lodging in resort destinations throughout Florida, South Carolina and Georgia grew 13.8% in April compared with the same month two years ago, while ADR was up 12.6% over the same period. Resort properties across those three states also enjoyed an aggregated 28.1% jump in revenue for the month of April compared with April 2019.

"The Southeast kind of lucked out in terms of timing," said Tom Foley, senior vice president for business operations and analytics for Inntopia. 

"They've done very well with rate management over the last few years, and they were coming off a very strong 2019-2020 low season with huge rate wins, setting a new low-season benchmark. So, they were kind of able to set consumer expectations just before the pandemic hit."

Foley added that the Southeast has also benefited from a head start on the recovery front, thanks to looser travel restrictions and capacity limits. 

"Along comes summer 2020, and a more relaxed attitude toward travel restrictions in the Southeast allowed them to open up more assertively," Foley said. "They were able to capitalize on the momentum they enjoyed during their record winter."

Although Foley acknowledged that summers throughout the Southeast have traditionally been "very strong," he called it "surprising" to see summer occupancy and rate levels throughout the region not only rebounding this season but hitting all-time highs. 

"The fact that we're looking at June already having more occupancy booked for arrival than the entire month of June 2019 is impressive," Foley said.

Sean Mullen
Sean Mullen

Sean Mullen, president of acquisitions, sales and revenue management at Noble House Hotels & Resorts, confirmed that the Florida market has been especially strong. According to the hospitality group's third-quarter forecast, Noble House's five Florida resorts are on track to see RevPAR increase 18% over the same period in 2019.

"We're seeing the demand for summer really pick up," Mullen said. "As vaccinations became much more mainstream, we saw a tremendous uptick in phone call volume, website volume and advance bookings."

Noble House is reporting particularly high demand at its Little Palm Island Resort & Spa in the Florida Keys, which suffered a hurricane-related shutdown in 2017, then reopened in March 2020, only to close again by the end of that same month. The 30-bungalow property reopened for a second time in June 2020, and for its first full year back in operation, Mullen said, the resort's occupancy is up 14.1% and its ADR up a whopping 57% on its last record year pre-2017. 

Mullen added that total spend per occupied room across all the company's resort properties year to date is up around 17%. 

"Not only are our guests willing to spend more on room type, but they're also spending more on spa and food and beverage," Mullen said. 

The exterior of the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa in South Carolina.
The exterior of the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa in South Carolina.

At the 416-room Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa in South Carolina, business is similarly booming, with Steve French, the property's director of sales and marketing, citing "record level" leisure demand as travelers continue to drive in from across the Northeast and Midwest.

"We've seen such an increase in demand, with rates outpacing 2019 levels anywhere from 10% to 20% to 30% in some cases," said French, who added that guests have proven increasingly willing to trade up to larger room categories as well as book stays that run slightly longer than the typical average.

Although the resort has capped its current capacity at around 90% to 95% due to staff shortages, French said that the property expects to be able to get staffing levels up and return to 100% capacity by June.

"We certainly realize that guests are maybe paying more than they have before in the past, and [that impacts] their expectations around the level of service that they deserve," French said. "Staffing is definitely an industry challenge that we're trying to solve."

The Southeast may be a frontrunner when it comes to domestic leisure travel, but whether the region can sustain its record performance for the long run remains to be seen.

"As other destinations that have warm weather and beaches open up, the return of the competitive marketplace might change the volume of bookings going into the Southeast region," said Inntopia's Foley.

Indeed, as resort markets across the Northeast and other U.S. regions see capacity restrictions disappear, summer bookings across other destinations are quickly ramping up.

The Wave Resort in Long Branch, N.J.
The Wave Resort in Long Branch, N.J.

Opened in May 2019, the 67-room Wave Resort in Long Branch, N.J., is prepping for a solid busy season, as restrictions related to pool deck, restaurant, bar and event space capacity are finally lifted.

"We're seeing a lot of demand," confirmed Robert Dunic, general manager for the Wave Resort and nearby sister property the Bungalow Hotel. "Booking windows are getting much longer, and we're even getting a lot of off-season corporate inquiries for the end of the third quarter and early fourth quarter."

Much of the resort's demand is being fueled by feeder markets like New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington.

"You're still seeing a lot of people who don't want to get on an airplane, so I think the drive market is going to be super successful again this year," said Joseph Del Guidice, senior vice president of PM Hotel Group, which manages the Wave Resort and the Bungalow Hotel. "There's a piece of that mindset that hasn't gone away yet."

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