`Can We Survive?' / City Hoteliers Worry More about Getting by Than Forecasting Recovery

Article excerpt

In a market besieged by cut-throat room rates, declining occupancy levels and the threat of an increased room tax, what's u ppermost in the minds of most Oklahoma City hoteliers is not "When will the market turn around?" but "Can we survive?"

Norton Locke, general manager of Oklahoma City's posh Skirvin Plaza Hotel, probably speaks for the majority when he calls the market situation here a "disaster."

"The number of hotels that are doing any significant business you can count on one hand," Locke said. "Everybody is seeing a softening in the market."

And while many hotels across the nation are preparing for the onslaught of travelers that summer vacation brings, Oklahoma City hotel owners are, for the most part, biding their time, Locke said.

"Since Oklahoma City is not a destination city, we won't enjoy a lot of that normal summer vacation business that a city like Dallas or St. Louis will," Locke said.

And even the question "When will the market turn around?" is not something that Locke sees as pertinent to Oklahoma City - at least not right now.

"I don't feel that we have even bottomed out," he said. "I think that we won't see a clear picture until we start analyzing the fall business which at this point is showing a softening."

Jim Tusing, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Hotel otel Association, disagreed with Locke and said he feels the Oklahoma City market has bottomed out, but he added that "it will be a long time coming back."

Oklahoma City's lack of destination status also bothers Tusing, who said "we need four or five things" in place such as the proposed $75 million Remington Park race track before Oklahoma City hotelowners and managers will see any noticeable shift in the market.

"We've been hit by three things," Tusing said. "The whole state has been hit with the (failure) of the agriculture business, the drop in oil (prices), and we're also suffering from a larger inventory of rooms with lesser business."

That excess inventory is present because a number of projects were begun in the midst of the oil boom during the early 1980s and just now have "come on-line," Tusing said.

"It's encouraging that they're predicting lower gas prices this summer, which should stimulate domestic travel," Tusing said, although Oklahoma City will be hard pressed to grab any of that market.

"We're not a destination state," he noted. "We have that drive-through traffic from East to West and North to South and that's about the extent of our tourism."

Part of the blame lies with the efforts, or lack of efforts, on behalf of city and state officials to promote tourism here, Tusing said.

"We have not done the job we all knew needed to be done," he said, adding that it's just now that officials are beginning to realize the need for increased spending on promotional campaigns to attract visitors' dollars.

For the market to make any headway against the incoming tide of depressed business, Tusing said "it will take a whole new thinking by the people in Oklahoma, especially when it comes to state government and city government.

"It must be a concentrated effort," he stated, and not the fragmented attempts of times past with cities and towns "promoting their own."

"We have never had a real concentrated effort and until we do it's going to be tough to mount a major tourism effort," he said.

Tusing's view of the lack of a concentrated effort was hotly disputed by Kathleen Marks, executive director of the Oklahoma City Convention and Tourism Bureau.

Marks said her office works with a number of state agencies, as well as Tulsa promoters, in a concerted effort to promote the state as well as the individual cities. But she didn't say Tusing was entirely wrong.

"The state and city do work together in promoting tourism," Marks said. "They do place an emphasis on the (state) parks and I wish they would put more emphasis on Oklahoma City and Tulsa. …