By Jackson Sharman
Two new hotels are moving to Rockbridge County, an area that already has 20 hotels and motels.
Parents of local college students and visitors to the Virginia Horse Center easily fill the existing 1,525 rooms available at hotels and motels on busy weekends.
“It’s like Easter Sunday,” said Jean Clark, director of Lexington-Rockbridge Tourism.
Chris Slaydon, the assistant director of the Rockbridge Community Development Office, said that representatives of a Residence Inn by Marriott recently completed a site plan review with the county. The Tourism Corridor Overlay Board, whose members are appointed by the county supervisors, reviewed plans for a Tru by Hilton on Wednesday.
The Residence Inn by Marriott will be on Rocklawn Lane near Routes 11 and 60, heading toward Buena Vista. The Tru by Hilton will be built on Econo Lane, near the exit for Interstates 81 and 64.
“Those hotels are going to help the downtown area so much,” said Clarke Hyman, who directs operations at The Georges in downtown Lexington. “I think a newer product will definitely succeed. Most of the hotels [in Lexington] are aged.”
People pack the local hotels on weekends when parents of Washington and Lee University, Virginia Military Institute and Southern Virginia University students come to visit their children. Parents’ weekends and graduations are big draws, and rooms are booked as much as year in advance.
The Virginia Horse Center hosts shows and competitions all year and community-oriented events like CareerFest.
Travelers are drawn to hotels and motels near the exit off I-81 and 64. Slaydon said about 50,000 cars travel on I-81 daily, and drivers stop and sleep at the Rockbridge hotels.
But Slaydon said the Horse Center and universities’ events are the real moneymakers because they attract people who spend money in restaurants and retail shops nearby.
“I think it’s obvious the historical growth patterns have gone around VMI, W&L, and then more recently, the Horse Center.”
Hotel owners capitalize on the demand, raising their rates for the popular weekends.
The Hampton Inn Col Alto on Nelson Street is charging $144 per night for a room in March. But its rate jumps to $274 a night in early May, when W&L hosts alumni reunions.
Umesh Gandhi, who owns hotels in the Rockbridge area, said there are enough events throughout the year for all the hotels in the area to make money. “[The events] help it stay busy all the time,” he said.
Gandhi said he will also own and operate the Tru by Hilton when it opens sometime in 2021. The chain hotel will be on Econo Lane, off Lee Highway. A Motel 6 is already on Econo Lane, and four more hotels are close by on each side of Lee Highway.
The Tourism Office cannot measure the occupancy rates in the hotels on the busy weekends.
Clark said the yield from the meals and lodging taxes help local officials quantify tourism. In 2019, Lexington collected over $2 million in lodging taxes, Rockbridge received $2.5 million and Buena Vista got over $366,000.
Clark said she is not worried about over-saturation.
“Nobody would take that kind of risk,” she said, “if they didn’t think they could make money off it.”