Bill James has been in the motel business for 17 years. He doesn't expect to hit year 20.
James, who owns the Eagle Motel on Manitou Avenue, has been severely affected by rising gas prices this year. Two weeks after Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start to the summer season, he said his business was down 75 percent as compared to the year before. And he didn't expect it to improve much.
"We have no customers," James said. "Ten years ago, business was very good here. It's been going downhill ever since, and $4 gas prices are pretty much the last straw. As a mom-and-pop motel, we depend on people driving through and stopping, but no one is driving now. If this continues, you can stick a fork in the mom-and-pops."
When interviewed the same week as James, representatives of several small, independent motels on Manitou Avenue reported drops in business.
"It's hard when you depend on the summer season to pull you through the entire year and then this happens," said Susie Brock, who along with her husband owns the Park Row Lodge. "At this time last year, I had 93 empty rooms scheduled for July. Right now, I have 168. That's really a drop we can't afford."
The strip of Manitou Avenue between Old Colorado City and downtown Manitou is unique in today's landscape. The last decade has seen a rise in large chain hotels, especially in Colorado Springs, as the tourism industry here has grown. Those chains, James added, have factored into dwindling business, too.
And then you can add in other factors. Leslie Lewis, director of the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, said earlier this month that since Sept. 11, 2001, she's noticed a trend of tourists wanting to stay in chain hotels rather than mom-and-pop joints.
"We've seen people wanting what they know, something familiar," Lewis said. "People know what to expect at the Comfort Inn. They aren't as carefree as they used to be."
While she says the overall start to the season was OK, she worries about the smaller businesses.
"We know that gas prices are going to have some impact," Lewis said, "but we're hoping that we'll see a balance of more in-state travelers who don't want to travel as far."
Nearly all motel owners interviewed for this story said that in-state travelers have made up a bit of the dropoff. But walk-in business is down. Cindy Hooten, co-owner of the Timber Lodge, said that she has seen people planning their vacations out more than they have in the past.
"People are getting on the Internet and planning out their mileage," Hooten said. "People are renting rooms with kitchenettes to save money on food. They aren't just setting out on the road to see where they'll end up anymore."
Same even goes for truck drivers. At the Dillon Motel, co-owner George James (no relation to Bill) said his reservations were down 60 percent this year, and that he's been hurt especially by a decrease in truckers driving through and staying the night.
"I'll tell you one thing: It makes you a smarter businessperson," said Hooten. "We've definitely upped the ante as far as customer service goes. You have to take advantage of every reservation, so we always have to jump when the phone rings."
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