September 8, 2008

Airport Hotels Are A Big Draw For Stranded Travelers

By Lee, Evelyn

Lodging industry offers amenities to get more business from displaced passengers

FOR HOTELS NEAR Newark Liberty International Airport, the airport's notoriously high number of delayed and canceled flights has meant growing traffic from stranded business travelers who come in search of a room for the night, or hotel amenities and services to utilize while waiting for the next flight. In response, some of these lodging establishments are striving to better accommodate and attract these types of guests.

Newark airport area hotels had an average occupancy of 75.1 percent for the first six months of 2008, according to Smith Travel Research in Nashville, Tenn. This was down from an occupancy rate of 76 percent during the first half of 2007. Possible reasons for the decline include the economic slowdown and less appreciation in hotel rates in Manhattan, which would entice business travelers to stay right in the city rather than at a Newark airport hotel, says Jan Freitag, vice president of global development at Smith Travel.

Newark Liberty International Airport remains one of the lowest- ranking major airports in the country for on-time arrivals and departures. In 2008, about 37 percent of flights at the airport were either delayed or cancelled, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics. This was the airport's second-worst performance in a 10-year period after 2007, when nearly 43 percent of flights were delayed or canceled. For the first five months of this year, the airport ranked 31 out of 32 major domestic airports for both on-time arrivals and departures, the bureau said.

In light of these factors, some airport hotels are seeing a small increase in the number of guests who are distressed, or displaced passengers because of delays and cancellations.

"I've seen more business due to delays," says Pat Strocchia, director of sales and marketing at the 591-room Newark Liberty International Airport Marriott in Newark, which is located on airport property. Flight delays, caused primarily by weather problems, have increased, he explains. The Marriott books an average of 20 rooms a day for guests who have missed flights or experienced weather-related flight delays, according to Strocchia.

"A good portion of our business is distressed passengers," says Laurie Gagliardo, director of sales at Wyndham Garden Newark Airport, a 349-room hotel about two miles from the airport. The hotel can book as many as 100 rooms a night for these types of travelers, according to Gagliardo.

While weather has been the main cause of delays and canceled flights, airline cutbacks have also contributed to more stranded passengers, says Bill Andreorio, director of sales and marketing at Hilton Newark Airport in Elizabeth, a 378room hotel less than one mile from the airport. "I really believe these business opportunities have increased since the airlines have started reducing the number of flights into and out of any number of destinations," says Andreorio. He says the hotel has received overnight guests from delayed or cancelled flights four times since February. Each time, the Hilton has booked anywhere from 25 to 100 rooms a night.

Airport hotels also get some non-lodging guests, who have long flight delays or missed connections but are able to get another flight out on the same day. At the Hilton Newark Airport, business travelers can book day-use rooms, usually between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., to shower, change clothes, relax, take a nap or do work while waiting. "It's used as a convenience if they have that long layover or if they arrive and find out there's been a delay that is not an hour delay, but a six-hour delay," says Andreorio. Additionally, such passengers make use of the hotel's restaurant and bar and the business center while waiting for their flight, he says.

Most displaced passengers that go to airport hotels, however, do intend to stay for the night, says Marriott's Strocchia. "We don't usually get people who are delayed only a few hours to come into the restaurant or bar." Such travelers usually will bide their time at the airport, he says.

Most airlines, either directly or through their travel companies, negotiate special rates with hotels for displaced passengers and crew members in the event of a delayed or cancelled flight, according to Andreorio. "Many hotels participate in these programs as it is short-term, day-of-arrival business which may be accepted or denied based on the hotel's occupancy for that evening," he says. Such business can make up for lost reservations from passengers who have been unable to get to the hotel because of flight delays or cancellations at their own points of departure.

At the Hilton Newark Airport, business from displaced passengers is usually not substantial, says Andreorio. "It's something that drops in your lap, and if you're available, you get it; if you're not, you don't," he says. Displaced passengers make up less than 2 percent of guests at the hotel.

Still, Newark airport hotels are making more of an effort to cater to travelers. The Wyndham Garden Newark Alport, formerly a Ramada hotel, underwent a $10 million rebranding renovation last year and has shifted its focus to cater more to business travelers than tourists, says Gagliardo. In addition to 24-hour fitness and business centers, the hotel also recently opened a new 24-hour grab- and-go station that allows guests to pick up pre-made sandwiches and coffee. All three facilities are suited for business travelers who are coming in on late-night flights or leaving on early-morning flights, she says.

Marketing the hotel is also critical to attracting distressed passengers to the property, adds Gagliardo. For the past three months, the Wyndham ran an ad in Continental Airlines' in-flight magazine and has also purchased advertisement spaces on the airport phone boards, which display photos and information on nearby hotels and allow passengers to call the hotel directly. "When the guests are distressed and they're paying on their own, they can go to the phone boards, see the hotel picture, pick up the phone and call for reservations," says Gagliardo.

After the Hilton Newark Airport completed its own multimillion- dollar renovation in March, Andreorio says he had new photos taken of the property to be placed on the airport phone boards along with ads that highlight the establishment's amenities-"all of those things that attract people who, for one reason or another, are going to stay here unexpectedly," he says. "You want to present your best image right there."

Bill Andreorio, director of sales at Hilton Newark Airport, says business travelers can book day-use rooms during flight delays.

E-mail to [email protected]

Copyright Journal Publications Inc. Aug 11, 2008

(c) 2008 NJBIZ. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.