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Face-lift needed in Clayton lodging industry

By Justin Boron

Interstate 75 is chock-full of travelers, and local motel manager Peter Patel wants to be the one they pick as they roll up and down the freeway scanning advertisement signs for a motel.

Having broken ground on what will be a three-story, 78-unit Comfort Suites in Morrow, Patel, 54, is part of a lodging market in Clayton County that industry analysts say must gravitate away from the older family-run establishments of the 1970s and more toward recognizable chain motels found in television commercials if it wants to succeed.

A broad assessment of the county's tourism industry to be released later this week illustrates the need for new flagship motels that offer a wider array of amenities like Internet access and convention facilities, said Stacey Dickson, the president and CEO of the Clayton County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"Some of our hotel stock is getting kind of dated," she said.

To propel the slow developing market, analysts say higher-end facilities are a must.

"(Hotel managers) must put more heads in beds and thus drive the quality of the lodging product higher," the report compiled by Randall Travel Marketing says.

Growth of the lodging industry has been a persistent problem locally while other communities have seen significant development, the report says.

Although much of the nation experienced a lodging boom in recent years, analysts say Clayton County's lodging companies have not expanded their facilities much recently, having added only 143 rooms collectively in the past three years.

They blame the lack of expansion on declining occupancy rates which averaged below the national rate of 60.8 percent last year, according to the Smith Travel Research report.

The county's lowest occupancy rates in the past five years came in the months of December and January, ranging from 47 percent to 63 percent, the Randall report says.

Occupancy rates typically need to remain above 60 percent in order for a motel to be successful, said Fred Beck, the chief financial officer of the Georgia Hotels and Lodging Association.

Despite the rates, Patel, who has worked in the lodging industry for 21 years, said his business can still be competitive

He said his Comfort Suites will be the new kid on the block and should thrive given its location near Interstate 75 and next door to the popular restaurant Cracker Barrel Old Country Store.

Positioned just south of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Patel also said he is looking to capitalize on the average of 230,000 passengers who came through Atlanta each day last year.

Beck said the airport is one of the biggest reasons the Southside lodging market is attractive.

But while it appears to have had a good year, Beck warned against too much expansion in an area where he said there isn't an overabundance of excess demand.

"I'm not exactly sure that the area is ready for more room inventory," he said.

Instead, he recommended expansion and renovation of existing facilities.

In Morrow, where Patel's new hotel will be, there are already six motels.

The addition of another hotel could potentially put at risk other hotels by decreasing their occupancy, which happened when the county added two motels when demand was declining, the Randall report says.