Grand Gulf outage gets credit for hike in hotel bookings

Published 5:54 am Sunday, May 23, 2010

After months of sluggish occupancy rates, business at Vicksburg’s hotels and bed and breakfasts was booming during April, thanks in large part to the Grand Gulf Nuclear Station refueling outage that brought an additional 1,000 temporary workers to the area.

“Absolutely, it was Grand Gulf that boosted April,” said Carolyn Stephenson, owner of Annabelle Bed and Breakfast. “I had some workers who were here for the entire month.”

Occupancy rates, as reported by Smith Travel Research, jumped to 69.4 percent in April — the highest rate seen in Vicksburg since October 2008. Last April, occupancy rates were at 55.2 percent.

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Located outside of Port Gibson — about 25 miles south of Vicksburg — Grand Gulf annually halts production in the spring to refuel and perform regular maintenance. This year, however, the plant also has been preparing for a 13 percent power upgrade that will soon make it the most powerful nuclear generating station in the country.

The timing could not have been any better for Vicksburg hoteliers. Occupancy rates hit a three-year low over the winter months, with only about 40 percent of the city’s approximately 2,500 rooms full from November through January.

Paul Patel, regional director of operations for Southern Hospitality Services, which owns and operates four hotels in Vicksburg, said the Grand Gulf outage was without a doubt the driving force behind increased occupancy in April. While he’s hopeful rates will remain around 70 percent through the summer, he noted most of the temporary workers are already gone and walk-in business remains light.

“I don’t think they’ll be higher than what we saw in April, but I’m hopeful,” Patel said. “The market is still very tight.”

Stephenson agreed, adding advance bookings are becoming rarer and rarer for bed and breakfast operators.

“It’s not looking so good for the rest of the summer,” she said. “We used to get a lot of advance bookings for the summer months, but we’re relying on last-minute bookings more and more — and they’re just real spotty right now.”

Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Bill Seratt said local attractions all are posting increases in visitation over last year, which might signal better occupancy rates to come this summer. For example, visitation at the Vicksburg National Military Park shot up to 62,000 in April, said Seratt, compared with about 50,000 visitors during the same month in 2009.

“We saw an increase in visitation at every area attraction in April, and it’s tracking a little bit ahead in May compared to last year as well,” Seratt said. “We’ve done a huge television advertising campaign in key feeder markets about a day’s drive away — Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi — and I think that’s helping.”

Just down the road from the nuclear plant, business also has been booming at Grand Gulf Military Park due to the outage, said administrative assistant Cathy Dodgen.

“The park is now fully occupied with 32 campers,” said Dodgen. “Normally during this time of year, we’d have about 15 campers. We love the outage.”