Natchitoches hospitality bucks the trend with robust hotel occupancy
Nathan Wilson | Reporter
Natchitoches area accommodations enjoyed strong occupancy during the first half of 2022. The June edition of the Cenla Economic Dashboard indicates occupancy tax collections rose 12% between April and May and nearly 40% over the previous year, while neighboring Rapides Parish endured a substantial decline during the same period.
Natchitoches Convention and Visitor’s Bureau Executive Director Arlene Gould believes tourism in Natchitoches is going strong. “We’re doing very well with hotel occupancy collections. We’ve been breaking records for a couple months now, actually pretty much every month this year,” she says. “I’m amazed how many times I come to work in the mornings at nine o’clock in the morning and see so many out of state license plates already on Front Street.”
Summers are traditionally a slower period for the hospitality industry in Natchitoches, where tourism peaks in autumn during the Christmas Festival season and tapers off during the hotter months. Gould sees construction of the Gulf Run pipeline between Westdale and Starks as a significant contributor to increases in local lodging during the off-season. “We have so many pipeline workers staying in the hotels and at the campgrounds,” she says. “In Natchitoches, they have certainly helped the occupancy tax increase over the last two months or so.”
An important feature of the visiting construction workers is that they are lodging in Natchitoches for weeks at a time. Gould sees this as an important contributor to their economic impact. “Our weekends traditionally are okay, it’s trying to fill the mid-week rooms that might be empty and right now they are being occupied by these out of town workers,” she says. “During the week, Wednesday through Thursday night, normally there wouldn’t be these people occupying the rooms and the campground sites (and) bed and breakfasts.”
“We are very happy and proud and pleased with our hotel collections,” says Gould. She suggests the economic benefits of the pipeline project are being felt across Natchitoches. “If we’re doing good, then the city’s sales taxes should be doing good.” She believes the pipeline workers are helping to support local businesses too. “If people are staying overnight that means they’re eating at restaurants or they’re going to the grocery store and buying food and groceries and they’re buying gas.”
Jay Sharplin, President of Sharpco Hotels Group, points to the pipeline as one of several factors that converged to nourish the Natchitoches economy during the first half of 2022. “The pipeline helped us out a lot,” he says. “That’s pretty much been the demand driver for the last three or four months.” He sees other causes of high hotel occupancy over recent months. “The first quarter was just pent up demand with people wanting to get out, and then we had a lot of drilling for gas at the gas wells north of us in the first quarter. Mansfield was filled up so we were seeing some of the over-flow from that market down here.”
While the pipeline workers were important to Sharplin’s business, he sees their influence waning as the project enters a new phase. “There’s still a few (pipeline workers) in town. It started slowing down last month and it peaked in May,” he says. “I would say probably 75, 80% of them are gone now compared to at the peak.” Without the influx of construction workers, he expects the remainder of the year to be more modest. “I’m optimistic for the second half, but I don’t think its going to be as good,” he says.
One threat to Natchitoches tourism is that high gasoline prices might dampen traveler’s plans or cause them to stay home entirely. “We hope that gas prices start dropping. They dropped a little bit, so hopefully they’ll keep moving downwards so people will get out of the house,” says Sharplin. “We just have to see how many people are traveling because we’re halfway between New Orleans and Dallas, so you get a lot of that traffic going back and forth for vacations.” He notes it’s hard to gauge the prospects for tourism during the off-season. “It’s kind of hard to judge with July, August and the first part of September because we’re generally slow,” he says.
Sharplin expects tourism to pick up again later in the year as it typically does in Natchitoches. “We feel pretty good about the fall season just because we have enough events,” he says. “That’s what really helps our market is all the festivals and the football games and the different events.” He suggests the biggest travel holiday of the summer, Independence Day, is unpredictable. “That’s usually a family reunion weekend, so if we have a lot of family reunions in town we’ll have a big Fourth of July,” he says. “I think we had a little bump, but there wasn’t anything significant this past weekend.”
A recent survey conducted by national hotelier Motel 6 (G6 Hospitality) indicated 57% of 2,000 participants were planning to attend either a family reunion or a long-awaited gathering with friends over the summer months. On average, family reunion participants had waited an average of four years since their most recent gathering with extended family. The study also revealed that modern family reunions include more guests such as friends and neighbors than in the past, but that nearly two-thirds of attendees identified an interest in preserving family traditions.
While the national chain is focusing on traveling families, the Motel 6 in Natchitoches is the closest accommodations to Michel’s Pipeline Yard. Its manager, Nathan Solomon, explains the impact of the pipeline construction on his business. “That’s exactly why we’ve been so busy,” he says. “They’ve got probably about 80% of our hotel currently.”
Solomon owns stakes in several hotels in New Mexico and began his tenure at Motel 6 just in time to see a massive increase in occupancy from pipeline crews operating in the area. “I just took this property over (at) the end of December. The pipeline started the first and the pipeline people started staying there the third of January.” He explains that while many of the original pipeline workers have moved on, others have taken their places. “They come in waves. They’ve got the clearing crew, digging crew, piping crew (and) welding crew (so) they moved some down to Leesville and more came in.”
The infusion of revenue the pipeline crews are providing comes at a critical moment for Motel 6’s owners. “We’re grateful for the pipeline as I’m sure every other property in town is. Without them, I’m sure us and many other properties would be experiencing a hard time right now,” says Solomon. He explains that the franchise’s plan is to use today’s windfall to attract future travelers. “We’re in the process of doing a major remodel on the property,” he says. “G6 has got different platforms. We’re currently at Phoenix and we’re going to a higher platform.”
Solomon is also learning about the attractions that bring other guests to Natchitoches. “I haven’t had a chance to explore a lot of the town yet. I know people come for the lights and the alligator farm,” he says. He’s self-deprecating about his familiarity with Natchitoches and its tourism, but confident about his role in the industry. “I can get to the bank and I can get to Wal-Mart without a GPS anymore,” he says. “I know there are people from out of town who need a place to stay.”
Motel 6’s study of summer travelers indicates the average family reunion attendee will travel nearly 80 miles to reunite with family and friends, while one third of travelers will make a trip of more than 100 miles.