Cancellations started coming into the King Charles Inn in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, as guests changed plans to stay out of the path of Hurricane Florence. Away from the coast, the staff at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel in Durham, North Carolina, fielded calls from meeting planners wondering what happens if the gathering storm forces them to call off their conferences.
For the hospitality business, such abrupt swings are practically routine during hurricane season along the U.S. East Coast, with one set of travelers canceling reservations ahead of the storm and another — including displaced residents and insurance and construction workers — making new bookings immediately afterward.
“You have existing business on your books that cancels because they can’t get here,” said Mike Martino, general manager of the Durham Sheraton. “And then you have people from the coast attempting to book rooms. It’s a crazy time period.”
Florence could be especially devastating for the tourism business in the Carolinas because of its unusual westward path. The hurricane is expected to reach land on Friday somewhere between Charleston and Norfolk, Virginia, according to the National Hurricane Center, which warned of life-threatening storm surges along the coast and freshwater flooding that could extend for hundreds of miles.
Total losses could reach $27 billion, said Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler with Enki Research in Savannah, Georgia. That would make it the eighth-costliest storm in U.S. history.
On Monday night, President Donald Trump declared an emergency in North Carolina.
With everything from vacation rentals in the Outer Banks of North Carolina to the luxury hotels in historic Charleston in its path, the storm would wreak havoc on an industry that employs about 10 percent of all workers across the two states. South Carolina’s tourism business generates more than $21 billion in annual sales, according to the state’s department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. In North Carolina, the industry brings in about $24 billion, according to the state’s Restaurant and Lodging Association.
At the King Charles Inn in Charleston, General Manager Maureen Sheridan skipped a planned day off to start implementing emergency plans, making sure her managers had accurate contact information for employees and beginning the process of moving computer hard drives and perishable goods away from the ground floor. Then she’ll hunker down in the hotel to weather the storm and make sure that her staff is ready to take in guests escaping lower-lying parts of the city.
While the staff is telling guests that the city is still in the “cone of uncertainty” with respect to the storm’s impact, it’s likely that the hotel will remain open.
“I’ve been here 11 years,” Sheridan said, “and we’ve never closed because of a hurricane.”