Sunday, April 08, 2001

Drawbridge holds its own in tight market for hotels

Competitors, economic winds challenge profit margins

By Cliff Peale
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Three decades after the Drawbridge Estate opened in Fort Mitchell, the sprawling complex still leads the way among Northern Kentucky hotels.

        These days, that's not saying much. With a market flooded with limited-service hotels and the economy slowing, hotels in Kenton, Campbell and Boone counties are hurting.

[photo] Drawbridge owner Jerry Deters opened the complex with about 150 rooms in October 1970, and has since expanded it to almost 500 rooms.
(Tony Jones photo)
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        “If we can't make it, nobody can make it,” said Jerry Deters, who opened the complex with about 150 rooms in October 1970, and has since expanded it to almost 500 rooms.

        “It's tougher than it was 15 years ago, but it's tough on everybody.”

        As the largest hotel in Northern Kentucky, the Drawbridge still takes hits to the local economy directly on the chin. For example, hours after Comair pilots went on strike Monday morning, a training session that filled 24 rooms at the Drawbridge suddenly left.

        For customers, the tough hotel environment means more choices and lower rates. But for operators such as Mr. Deters, it makes obtaining the significant profits of the last decade nearly impossible.

        “I wouldn't say we're making a lot of money,” said Jim Willman, vice president of operations at the hotel now. “It's just a difficult market right now.”

        The Drawbridge Estate originally covered a sprawling complex that included entertainment, recreation and the hotel. The Drawbridge Inn still enjoys the reputation and solid base of loyal corporate business that it has pitched for years. But the atmosphere around it has shifted radically.

        Once known as the dominant hotel for airport travelers, and the dominant place for meetings and conventions in Northern Kentucky, the facility now faces challenges on both fronts.

        There are new Marriott hotels at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport and on the Covington riverfront. The Covington hotel is connected to the Northern Kentucky Regional Convention Center, which has now become the meetings center in the Northern Kentucky region.

        Add to this the flood of limited-service hotels, many along the interstates in Florence and Erlanger, and the base of corporate business has eroded.

        Overall, the number of hotel rooms in Northern Kentucky has jumped to more than 7,000 from about 4,200 only four years ago.

        The Drawbridge also operates as an independent, and cannot depend on corporate advertising or reservation campaigns that the Marriott and other chains get from their national parent companies.

        “If you built something today without a (chain) flag on it, I don't know if it would work,” said Tom Caradonio, president of the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The thing they have going for them is they've established this reputation over a long time.”

        While nearly all hotels in Northern Kentucky are suffering, the Drawbridge has managed to keep its occupancy rate at about 48 percent, above the average of about 41 percent throughout the three counties, Mr. Willman said.

        About half of the Drawbridge's total business comes from meetings and conventions, with about one-quarter from corporate business.

        The Drawbridge has tried several measures to keep its business prospering. During the last two years, it has poured $3.5 million into a renovation of most guest rooms and public areas, Mr. Willman said.

        Last year, Mr. Deters sold the former Oldenberg Brewery building to Kentucky Speedway owner Jerry Carroll. That building now houses a Montgomery Inn restaurant.

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