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As more people worldwide are sickened by the swine flu, hotel owners are overcome with a growing sense of deja vu. Back in 2003, when the SARS virus broke out in Hong Kong and spread to Toronto, cross-border treks came nearly to a standstill. For instance, according to a report prepared by PKF Consulting, Canada’s lodging industry lost an estimated $491 million in revenues in the second quarter of ’03.

This time around, with a deep recession to contend with, hoteliers not only face unprecedented drops in RevPAR but the prospect of a worldwide flu epidemic further constraining global travel. Therefore, the question for the lodging industry now is, will this a have long-term impact or will it be short-lived?

A recent poll on GlobeSt.com asked readers whether the swine flu outbreak will further decimate the hotel sector or would not have a long-term impact. A clear majority–62%–said the effect would not be lasting. GlobeSt.com asked Joseph A. McInerney, president and CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, for his take regarding the impact of the swine flu scare on the hospitality business.

“We are into about the third or fourth day of [news of the flu outbreak] and we haven’t seen many cancellations to speak of. The major cancellations we saw were in the early morning of Monday in the European reservation offices after the EU commissioner said that non-essential travel to the US and Mexico shouldn’t be taken. All of a sudden, the reservation systems started to get cancellations. By the time it was retracted roughly three hours later, things went back to normal.”

“I was at a meeting this morning of about 12 US senators and people from the travel industry such as Jonathan Tisch [chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels], Rossi Ralenkotter, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, and some of the other trade associations. Nobody has seen any major cancellations as of yet. If you look at the flu in a normal year, around 30,000 people in the US die every year from the flu. We haven’t had a major epidemic this year, and so having roughly 68 that have been stricken [according the Centers for Disease Control, 141 cases of the flu had been confirmed in the US by May 1] and one death so far in the US, is not something to panic about. What you need to do is make sure you do the proper things, the things the CDC is recommending, such as wash your hands frequently, minimize touching your nose and mouth, immediately discard any tissues you use, get sleep and drink a lot of fluids. If you do get sick, don’t go to work and if it gets worse, go to a hospital.”

“Whether the US gets hit harder than the rest of the world depends on if there are significant outbreaks and in which countries. They’ve had a couple of cases in the UK and Spain. This is going to have to be a case of wait and see.”

“It’s hard to say how much revenue will be lost. After SARS, GDP in East and Southeast Asia was down $18 billion, according to the Asian Development Bank. We really don’t know and we are not going to know until we see the severity of this. If next week, it’s on the front page of all the newspapers and still the lead stories on TV news, then there might be some impact. But up until then we should be very cautious about what we say about it. We’ve got enough other problems with the economy and with legislators on Capitol Hill making irrational statements about our industry and conventions and meetings. Forecasting what will happen when we don’t know the severity of it could create major problems for our industry.”

“It will be very short-term impact just like any other disaster. As soon as it’s over and not on the front pages of the newspaper, people will go on their normal way. If you remember during the baseball strike people said they were never going to go back to a baseball game. Guess what? The next year, they had the highest attendance. People forget very quickly when it’s not in their face.”

“Hotel operators should have an emergency plan of what they should be doing and instruct their employees and even guests to do the things recommended by the CDC. We are preparing a paper for members on what they should tell their guests. They need to be prepared. But they shouldn’t panic.”

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