Priced Out

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Photo by Noah Lewton

Leslie Corbitt and her parents had done their research. They knew how quickly Athens hotels filled up, especially for event weekends, and they needed to book two rooms for Ohio University’s spring graduation. The Hampton Inn was the first to allow guests to make reservations on May 27, and the Corbitts were ready.

Leslie’s mother, Laura Corbitt, dialed the number for the hotel with her purse nearby. She needed to work quickly, as the Hampton takes reservations on a first-come, first-serve basis. After speaking with a member of the staff, Laura learned the cost of two rooms for two nights — the Hampton had a two-night minimum in place for that high-traffic weekend — would be more than $1,000.

Laura almost couldn’t justify spending that much for a hotel, but her desire to see her daughter graduate overshadowed her doubts.

As Laura gave the Hampton her credit card information, her husband, Randy Corbitt, searched the web for other options while he was at work. About five minutes after Laura booked the rooms and received a confirmation email, Randy called and said he found a three-bedroom cottage for half the price.

Laura and Leslie looked into the Creekside Cottage, which sits on 20 acres of wooded land and has a standard rate of $179 per night for two people and $20 per additional guest. With a full kitchen, hot tub, fire pit and enough space for other family members to visit without spending hundreds on extra hotel rooms, the cottage was the perfect option for the Corbitts. After securing their spot at the cottage for spring graduation, they called the Hampton and canceled their reservation.

That’s not a rare scenario for students, parents and alumni to encounter when trying to book hotels at Ohio University, especially on event weekends. Those high-traffic weekends include Black Alumni Reunion, Parents Weekend, Homecoming, Dads Weekend, fall commencement, Sibs Weekend, Moms Weekend and spring commencement. Although there are 10 hotels and motels within 10 minutes of campus, they fill up quickly, often leaving visitors searching for other solutions when they try to come to Athens during busy weekends.

Most Athens hotels open their books for event weekends about a year in advance. The Fairfield Inn and Suites began booking rooms for 2017 spring graduation on June 1, but it began taking reservations for Moms Weekend (March 31–April 2, 2017) on April 18. But even those who plan ahead might not have an easy time reserving rooms in their hotel of choice.

Fairfield General Manager Mark Samuels tells visitors when rooms will be available through the hotel’s Facebook account.

“When mine are ready, I just let everybody know,” Samuels says. “They’re available online, and we’re sold out within five minutes.”

If visitors get reservations for big weekends in Athens during the early stages of the booking process, the prices can be intimidating. The Fairfield’s event weekend price is $249 plus tax when its rooms are first available for sale, but its general price for non-event weekends is $149 plus tax. Samuels says he often places two-night minimums on high-traffic weekends, which is common among other hotels as well.

The Hampton has different tiers of prices it charges for rooms. Its base rate is $119 plus tax, but the prices increase for weekend stays. The first tier has prices ranging from $169 to $189 plus tax, and the next tier ranges from $209 to $219 plus tax. The highest-demand tier of rooms can cost between $239 and $249 plus tax.

Hampton General Manager Lindsay Shaver says the hotel works with a revenue manager to decide what to charge for each weekend, but supply and demand are the big factors the hotel and its management consider when deciding what to charge for certain rooms.

“We base a lot of stuff on history and projections based on that history. … We discuss the different things that are going on in the area [and] the demand that we have,” Shaver says. “But demand is really the true factor [that affects] rate.”

A big part of demand is the type of clientele who come for each weekend. For example, people who visit for Parents Weekend are different than those who come for the Halloween Block Party. Samuels says the Fairfield charges less when it doesn’t expect much demand, but it might charge more to appeal to a different audience.

“Sibs Weekend isn’t as busy, so the rate isn’t as bad,” Samuels says. “Halloween, with the block party, we keep the rates fairly high because we don’t want our rooms to be trashed.”

The Hampton and Fairfield are owned and managed by SJB Development Inc., a subsidiary of SJB Hotel Companies that manages multiple hotels in Ohio and West Virginia. But their prices and the prices for each Athens hotel differ based on the services each inn has to offer its guests.

“It’s definitely about value,” Shaver says. “… That price isn’t just for a bed in a room.”

It’s common to see hotel rates rise and drop in the weeks leading up to big events or the dates close to them. The price of a room with a king bed in the Fairfield for Dec. 10, the date of Ohio’s fall commencement ceremony, increased from $105 plus tax on Sept. 15 to $142 plus tax on Sept. 20.

But cancellations — as well as a lack of available rooms — on big weekends can also affect pricing. On Sept. 15, the Thursday, Friday and Saturday of 2017 spring graduation weekend were available for check-in at the Fairfield, and the charge for a room with a king bed was $108 plus tax for Thursday night and $132 plus tax per night for Friday and Saturday. Five days later on Sept. 20, Friday and Saturday were unavailable for check-in and the price for Thursday had skyrocketed to $244 plus tax for one night.

Samuels says guests can cancel their reservations up to 30 days before their stays, but the Fairfield isn’t alerted when a previously fully booked weekend has an availability. A previously booked room that becomes available will relist with the same price it had when it was originally booked, but the dates close to the in-demand days will experience price changes. Samuels says he and the management company monitor how a certain weekend is booking far in advance, and if they see a high demand for that day, they will raise the price.

However, Athens hotels don’t base prices off of what other hotels in the area decide to charge. Even if the same company owns two competing hotels, such as the situation with SJB Development Inc., it will choose prices based on the amenities the lodging offers and the demand for certain weekends. Shaver says the policy of avoiding what is generally called “price fixing” also applies when a hotel decides to increase or decrease prices as dates get closer.

“You don’t really base your rates off of other hotels, and that’s pretty clear when you look on a Thursday night, and the [Ohio University] Inn’s at like $95,” Shaver says. “We don’t drop our rates just because they’re lower. We kind of base it on our own rate structures.”

Although the OU Inn charges a standard rate between $129 and $139 on low-traffic weekends and prices in the low $200s on event weekends, which are similar to the rates of other Athens hotels, it has a different approach to booking rooms it believes is fairer to its guests: a lottery system.

OU Inn General Manager Scott Kovalick says the inn schedules summer call-in dates on which potential visitors have 12 hours to call the hotel and enter the lottery. Staff members take down guest information for each caller, and after the day is over, 139 names are picked.

“We actually draw it right out of a bin,” Kovalick says. “… If they’re interested, we’ll ring them up. And if not, we’ll just keep drawing names until we fill up.”

Kovalick says the OU Inn decided to do its booking process differently than other hotels to make it a more even playing field, especially for people who have difficult work schedules and aren’t able to call in at a certain time. But booking rooms based on a lottery system helps the hotel out, too.

“If we did [first come, first serve], we’d have 3,000 people who are trying to call in at 9 a.m.,” he says. “We’re Ohio University Inn; we don’t have a Marriott flag where we have a bunch of people at a call-in center. We wouldn’t be able to take all of the calls at once.”

Even if visitors are unlucky with booking hotels or choose not to make reservations far in advance, they have other options in the form of bed-and-breakfasts, cottages and Airbnbs.

Emily Schmitt and her parents fall into the latter category. Mary and Steve Schmitt don’t normally plan their visits to Athens very far in advance and prefer to come on less busy weekends to avoid the crowds.

Last year, the Schmitts decided to do something different and visit their daughter, a fifth-year senior studying applied nutrition, on Sibs Weekend. They started their hotel search about a month before the event and found themselves out of luck.

“They brought my little sister down, and they wanted to stay away from us. … [But] they couldn’t get a hotel room; they were all booked up,” Emily says. “So, they decided to get a cabin in Hocking Hills.”

Steve was already familiar with Airbnb, an online service and app that allows people to list and reserve casual accommodations, so the family searched the app and found a large cabin to stay in for the weekend. Although it was more space than they needed and a longer drive from campus than they would have preferred, Emily says the family enjoyed doing something different.

“They usually try to do something a little unique,” she says. “They don’t like hotels; they don’t like staying in them. … We have so many beautiful state parks nearby, and they’re excited to utilize that and get a unique experience.”

Athens Cottage and Athens Footpath Bed and Breakfast, which books through Airbnb, offer alternative solutions to the typical hotel stay. For event weekends, Athens Cottage charges $350 plus tax per night for Friday and Saturday, and Athens Footpath B&B charges $175 plus tax.

Another option, although farther away from campus, is Hyde House B&B in Nelsonville. Regardless of the weekend — event or non-event — the price stays at $109 plus tax per night.

The addition of Airbnb has also affected the hotel market. Although homeowners who rent through Airbnb are generally more flexible with the dates, prices and amenities they offer to guests, White says he doesn’t see Airbnb affecting the OU Inn very much.

“The clientele that we normally have are still going to want the experience here versus staying in someone’s spare bedroom,” he says. “But I think the college side of things, people coming to visit friends and just coming down to town to kind of party, the Ohio lifestyle, I think it’s a good option for them.”

Although White says Airbnb is an option college students would prefer, parents and alumni as well are starting to seriously consider the other options Athens has to offer, including cottages.

For the Corbitts, those other options are more appealing. Although some visitors choose lodging by comparing amenities offered to price requested, bigger hotels might not always win.

“My dad was saying he wished he would have known about this sooner,” Leslie says, “because on those weekends of freshman and sophomore year, it would have been nice to know that this [cottage] was an option.”

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