Is the millennium celebration a hype or a happening? It all depends on whether your champagne glass is half full or half empty. Or on who does the talking.
Richard Doumeng, general manager of Bolongo Beach Club and Villas and president of the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel and Tourism Association, was quoted recently as saying the millennium is a bust worldwide.
According to Doumeng, three charter operators have already canceled flights scheduled to arrive on St. Thomas on Christmas and depart on New Year’s Day. These were Saturday-to-Saturday charters.
But a check of local hotels shows that St. Thomas hoteliers weren’t sitting around waiting for charter passengers to fill the rooms for the millennium celebration.
John Gilbert, general manager of Sapphire Beach Resort and Marina, isn’t worried about the cutback in charter flights. He said the busy season starts at Thanksgiving for Sapphire.
"We’re doing just fine for the Christmas holidays," he said. "There was some dropoff in holiday reservations overall on the island, but we have a waiting list at Sapphire. We’re fortunate that we have a long history of repeat guests who come down every year for the holidays."
At the Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort, food and beverage director Gary Cahill says there are still some availabilities for New Year’s Eve.
"We're slowing filling up," he said.
The availability of flights into the island has been a problem, he said, but "I’m confident the additional flights that United Airlines will bring to the islands, beginning next week, will help."
Cahill says Sugar Bay has stockpiled the champagne and is ready for the crowds. "Since the outcome of the millennium celebrations is yet to be proven, it’s way too early to call it a bust," he said.
At Marriott's Frenchman’s Reef Beach Resort, the story is different. Andrew HeLal, the new managing director, said he has many rooms available over the New Year's period. He attributes this to a shortage of airline seats.
"People can’t get here," he said. "If American (Airlines) would put on more flights and reasonable prices, we might fill the rooms."
According to HeLal, there were 19,000 to 30,000 seats a week coming into St. Thomas before Hurricane Hugo; this had dropped to about 17,000 before Hurricane Marilyn, and it's down to 9,300 now.
"We can’t operate with that kind of shortage of seats," he said. "It’s a shame we can’t get our travel partners to make more seats available."
HeLal estimates the Reef is about 25 percent to 33 percent booked for Jan. 1, "half of what we would normally have."
But the situation may not be as dismal as it appears. According to HeLal, a decade ago, people typically booked vacation travel arrangements up to six months in advance, whereas today it’s more like 30 to 90 days.
The new air service coming into St. Thomas should help, HeLal said, "but it’s not like turning on a tap." And he feels it may be next spring before the hospitality sector feels the results of the additional seats.
John Murphy, general manager of the Renaissance Grand Beach Resort, said he anticipates being near capacity for the millennium celebration.
"Would I like to be totally sold at out at this point? Yes," he added.
Doumeng, however, remains convinced the media played a major part in raising unrealistic expectations within the hospitality business.
"They had us believing the millennium celebrations would be huge," he said. Resorts offered getaway packages, and "many raised prices in expectation of making money."
Doumeng feels the hype also left the public with the perception that everything was sold out, he said, so many people haven't even tried to make reservations.
Adding to this, Doumeng said, the news media has bombarded the pubic with Y2K horror stories. "It was a ‘Let’s build it up to break it down’ situation," he said.
As a result, he says, cruise ships and hotels now face the prospect of slashing rates that had been inflated in anticipation of the millennium crush of customers.
Even so, Doumeng is optimistic. "We’ll still have a good week over the holidays, but not what we thought it would be," he said. "The millennium is a joke, but Christmas and New Year’s will bail us out. It will be decent."
Doumeng said tour operator Apple Vacations is expected to bring one charter to the island for the millennium but has canceled a second one. Apple Vacations West media relations manager Annette Carollo said the outlook at Apple is optimistic.
"We’re seeing a lot of people traveling over the holidays, but not what we first expected," she said. "We have some options still available and they’re going fast so not everyone is worried about the Y2K bug."
Carollo said affordable prices and desirable locations in the Caribbean and Mexico are filling the charters.
Jim Talin, vice president for development at Boston-based GWV Charters, said a GWV flight from Boston on New Year's Day has been cancelled, but one will arrive here on Christmas Day.
"There was resistance at the public level to pay high millennium prices, not just to St. Thomas and St. Croix, but everywhere," he said. "We canceled millennium flights to several destinations."
Talin said a certain segment of the market is afraid to travel because of negative publicity about Y2K. "We are located in the heart of the high-tech area, so we may have felt it more than other charter suppliers," he said.
Also, he said, "Since many who work in the computer field are not allowed to take time off during the holidays, we have had some dropoff."
GWV will resume regularly scheduled charters to St. Thomas and St. Croix on New Year's Day, he said.
"This is our second year of serving the islands, and we did very well there last year," he said.
So, is the Y2K champagne glass half full or half empty? Hoteliers, restaurateurs, club owners and charter operators will make that assessment on Jan. 1. But most agree for now that the upcoming season looks promising for St. Thomas.


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