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Tourism Is Rising in D.C., And So Are Hotel Prices

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 20, 2005

A banner tourism year fueled by millions of dollars spent in ritzier hotel rooms and fancier restaurants is squeezing the shorts-and-sandals crowd, sending more families searching for suburban hotels and fast-food restaurants to make the quintessential Washington experience affordable.

The rise in overall hotel occupancy trumpeted by tourism officials has been followed by a much stronger increase in hotel room rates, making Washington a close second to New York City for high room costs. That means that the backbone of the old D.C. tourism -- the far-from-home family, saddled with backpacks, cameras and speeches about democracy -- is struggling.

"Everything is so expensive here. We're having a hard time affording things," Jeanna Padilla of San Diego said while eating a convenience store sandwich outside a museum this week, opting against the museum entrees, which can cost as much as $15.

"When we looked at some restaurant prices, we were like, 'Whoa, we're on a budget.' The appetizers at one place cost $20. We can't do this," Padilla said. "We bought our sandwiches somewhere else. We're paying 85 bucks for a hotel in College Park."

With compromises, the Padilla family made it work.

The engine that drives the District's tourism industry is changing. Washington is preparing for its biggest and most lucrative convention year, which began with a presidential inauguration that generated a record $44.6 million in visitor spending, according to Thomas M. Mobley Jr., head of the Washington Convention Center Authority.

Forty conventions are booked for 2005, almost double last year's number. Conventioneers are expected to bring $705 million into the city this year, he said.

Those expense account tourists are boosting hotel occupancy rates to the pre-Sept. 11 level of 72 percent, but they are also jacking up the price of a hotel room.

This spring, AAA named Washington one of the most expensive places to visit in the country, warning that the approximately 20 million tourists who come to the capital annually will "experience sticker shock."

"It now costs more for a family of four to take a vacation in the nation's capital than it does in New York City and Boston," John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said in a news release announcing that according to the organization's calculations, a family of four will pay about $441 a day for food and lodging in Washington.

AAA compared that number, which it culled from its annual tour book, with the $307 average it calculated for New York state and the $303 price tag for Massachusetts. That means that Manhattan's stratospheric rates were offset by the $70-a-night Econo Lodge in Poughkeepsie.

Comparing the District with states that have several sightseer destinations can produce unflattering results. A Travel Industry of America survey released Wednesday showed the city slipping from the group's top 10 tourist destinations to No. 11.

"We're proud to be No. 11 when compared to all these big states with multiple destinations," said Victoria Isley of the Washington, D.C., Convention and Tourism Corp.

Comparing the District with states is comparing apples with oranges, said Duane Vinson of Smith Travel Research Inc., which tracks hotel rates nationwide.

When Washington is compared with the downtown areas of Manhattan, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and Honolulu, the average room rate ranks second, at $166.34 a night, behind Manhattan's $204.85, according to Smith Travel.

Still, such events as the inauguration or a convention can drive those rates up.

"I paid $443 a night here. That's ridiculous; I'll never do it again," said Mary Ann Anderson of Orlando, who said she can stomach the $1.85 she paid for a small bottle of water, "coming from one tourist city to another." But on her trip this week, she said, she was stunned by the cost of food and lodging.

"We've been here before, and it wasn't so expensive. But we came to see the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit, and it was fantastic. It was free; that was amazing," she said.

That is the aspect of the city that tourism officials hope visitors will notice.

"The Smithsonian museums are free, the National Gallery of Art is free, the zoo is free," Isley said. "Compare that to the $20 admission fee to just about anything in New York."

Price aside, there are die-hard fans of the capital. LouAnn Willis of Williamsburg has been bringing her family to Washington for years, and she still believes it is the best tourism value in the nation.

"We need to teach our families that there is so much culture to be found here. Just look around us. It's all here, and it's free to be discovered by us," said Willis, pointing to three museums near the sculpture garden on the Mall. "Forget Disney. There's real culture to be found here."

Families like hers are finding ways to make the vacation more affordable, avoiding the expensive hotels that dominate downtown.

Isley said: "With increased demand for hotel rooms, outlying properties are sometimes more affordable. That's an important factor for family travel, and we know that."

The Smiths of Nashville found a hotel room for $127 a night in Rockville a week ago, when they decided on a last-minute trip.

"This has been a real bang for our buck," said Georgann Smith, while her husband and two children relaxed outside the National Air and Space Museum, laden with souvenirs.

"We got White House passes from our congressman, we're seeing all these great museums, and we eat really big lunches, so we don't spend so much at dinnertime," Smith said. The family picked a hotel near a Metro stop and enjoys the morning ride on the Metro, planning what to do on the way in.

Hailey Smith, 15, took a break with an Italian ice that her mother wouldn't ordinarily buy.

"I really don't mind paying $2.75 for a snack when my kids get to see all this for free," Georgann Smith said, sweeping her hand from the Capitol to the Washington Monument.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company