While Hurricane Florence temporarily shuttered two Wrightsville Beach landmark hotels, along with numerous vacation rentals, the hemorrhage on the town’s room occupancy tax loss has seemingly reached an end.
Closed from damages following the September storm, Shell Island Resort, 2700 N. Lumina Ave., reopened last month, and historic Blockade Runner Beach Resort, 275 Waynick Blvd., reopened the majority of its complex Valentine’s Day weekend. New Hanover County’s room occupancy tax (ROT) is 6% on short-term lodging sales and is used to fund beach renourishment and tourism promotion.
The last three months of available data show Wrightsville Beach’s yearover- year ROT shrinking at times, with a 23.6% drop in November and a decrease of 17.4% in December, followed by a 9.2% increase in January.
“We are encouraged to see growth in January,” said Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau spokeswoman Connie Nelson. “With Shell Island Resort opening in March and Blockade Runner partially opening in mid-February, with the rest of their rooms coming back online later this spring, we are hopeful that the trend in ROT increase will continue.”
As annual spring events return to the beach community, the outlook is promising. The US Open Fat Bike Beach Championship returned to Wrightsville Beach last month, among others.
“In March, like we’ve done so many years, we were the host hotel of the Wrightsville Beach Marathon so we welcomed some of those guests [back],” explained Blockade Runner general manager Nicolas Montoya. “We [also] hosted the US Open Fat Bike race on the beach, over 150-160 participants.”
What’s more, since reopening, the hotel has made up a handful of larger bookings that the property lost because of the storm.
“In March we welcomed back a handful of groups that were cancelled because of Florence,” Montoya said. “Some of these clients were very gracious and held off and rebooked with us in March, back in September.”
Moving forward, officials say the remainder of the spring travel season looks bright. Eighty percent of the Blockade Runner’s rooms are available – the remaining 30 rooms, located in the balcony building, were expected to be operational by the end of April (as of press time) – and bookings are on the rebound.
“Even though we don’t have the inventory we would like to have with the balcony section still out, we’re pacing very well for April,” said Montoya. “April should be strong for the region in general, with two full spring breaks in the middle of April [and Easter Sunday on April 21].
“Then we finish up the month ourselves with the standup paddle board race … the Carolina Cup,” he added.
Meanwhile, the month of May has the potential to continue the hotel room rental uptick, at all of Wrightsville Beach’s hotel properties.
Featuring two popular holidays for spring visitors, spring’s final full month blends into the summer tourism season.
“May is also a very strong late spring month with Mother’s Day and Memorial Day, [and] the bookings for the summer are all looking very strong,” Montoya said. “We’re fortunate to be back up and running; we’re fortunate that some of our [other] inventory in Wrightsville Beach is coming back up as well,” he said. “The competition is a good thing for all of us. Shell Island opened up March 1, and that’s a good thing for [Wrightsville Beach], for the island.”
Unlike Shell Island and Blockade Runner, the island’s third major hotel, Holiday Inn Resort Wrightsville Beach at 1706 N Lumina Ave., didn’t suffer major hurricane damage.
It did not close after the hurricane.
Another factor could continue the hotel booking boost.
“There’s also some news we’re gathering that vacation rentals may not be all back in line for this summer season so I think hotel room [bookings] may be edging up a little bit higher than last year,” Montoya added.
As for Wrightsville Beach’s recent ROT collections, Montoya offered a positive perspective.
“Wrightsville Beach, it fell; what we can read into that, at best, is we kind of stopped the bleed,” he said. “The second part of that is that by the time that we opened Feb. 15, by the time Shell Island opened March 1, the occupancy tax for March is going to be not necessarily the best ever but strong enough that we continue to neutralize the loss.”