NEW YORK CITY-Although at least one leading lodging chain’s CEOsaid he’s heard about cancellations, the overall impact of the Gulfoil spill on regional travel is unclear, hotel chiefs toldreporters Monday at the Tisch Center Hospitality Conference. “It’sstill pretty early” to determine how seriously the spill willaffect summer tourism, said Arne Sorenson, president and COO ofMarriott International, Inc., during the conference’s annual“Coffee Talk” media briefing.

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That being said, other CEOs shared the concerns of David Kong,president and CEO of Best Western International, who saidfranchisees along the Gulf Coast have told him that a number ofbookings have been canceled as the BP oil spill spread. Sorensoncited the grim T.V. and Web images of oil-coated sea birds, whichseemed to reach a point of ubiquity this past Friday.

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Yet Monty Bennett, CEO of Ashford Hospitality Trust, expressedoptimism that the travel demand which created those bookings in thefirst place would not go away but would shift elsewhere. “You mayhave all these travelers who won’t go to Gulf locations,” he said.“But the desire to travel isn’t going to disappear.” The coastalareas’ loss may turn into gain for regional tourist destinationswithin reasonable driving distance, such as Branson, MO.

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As the spill’s area grows, so too does the number of states thatcould potentially be affected. An upside of the disaster’smagnitude is the opportunity it presents for managing the flow ofinformation through a large-scale campaign that tells would-betourists which areas are and aren’t affected, said Dr. Laila Rach,divisional dean and HVS professor at New York University’s PrestonRobert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and SportsManagement.

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“The states have to get together and do something very effectiveand consistent with their messaging,” said Rach.

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Panelists in the 45-minute briefing, moderated by JonathanTisch, chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels Corp., also focused onother factors that could impact hotel bookings. Tisch noted thatthere’s a concern that the weakening euro could thin the ranks ofEuropean tourists whose travel to gateway cities helped stem theimpact of the downturn in 2008 and 2009. Yet Jay Shah, CEO ofHersha Hospitality Trust, was optimistic that domestic travel couldoffset this.

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Conversely, Tisch was upbeat about the potential renewal ofbusiness and conference travel. During the trough of the downturn,he said, “there was tremendous pressure on CEOs to cut costs.Cutting back on meetings was an easy fix.” Now, he said, corporateheads have begun to feel better about their bottom lines.

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Rach warned that many companies have embraced teleconferencing,“and it’s not going away.” She said hoteliers shouldn’t overlookthe cruise industry, either. “They’re making a determined effort tobecome the meeting venue of choice,” she said.

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Some lodging chains have begun accommodating the lure of virtualmeetings. Sorenson noted that Marriott has installed “telepresencecenters” in six of his hotels, meant to offer teleconferencingfacilities for local companies that aren’t set up to conduct suchmeetings effectively in their own offices. These facilities seembest suited for relatively small meetings of no more than a dozenparticipants, he said. However, he added, “We’ll continue to seecompanies want to come together in person.”

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Paul Bubny

Paul Bubny is managing editor of Real Estate Forum and GlobeSt.com. He has been reporting on business since 1988 and on commercial real estate since 2007. He is based at ALM Real Estate Media Group's offices in New York City.