Even though the average hotel occupancy rate for the Danville-Pittsylvania area in August was a very manageable 62%, the region expects to see millions more visitors in coming years, thanks to the expected 2024 opening of a Caesars casino and resort.
City officials and some hoteliers say this means that additional lodging will be needed in the near future — perhaps even in the present.
“The demand is not going to stop,” said Lisa Meriweather, tourism director for Danville and Pittsylvania County. “It’s not going to stop, and it’s not slowing down.”
There are about 850 hotel rooms in the city of Danville, across a variety of properties, both branded and independently owned. Pittsylvania has just one hotel: an 81-room Hampton Inn in the town of Gretna.
Danville’s inventory will expand next month with the opening of the 45-room Holbrook Hotel. And Caesars will add another 500 rooms to the city’s inventory when it opens its permanent casino and resort next year.
Whether that will be enough added capacity — and if so, for how long — is a question that Danville soon hopes to answer. The city is preparing to hire a consultant to study its lodging needs. The plan is for the consultant to look at demand in the city, though Meriweather said Pittsylvania County likely will need more hotel rooms as well.
Not everyone in the local hospitality industry is sure that more growth is justified; current occupancy rates are unremarkable, some say, and the 500 Caesars rooms could be more than enough to meet demand.
Still, the casino resort alone is expected to bring 2 million annual visitors to the region. And other recent tourism efforts aim to bring visitors to the region for more than just Caesars.
“With all that’s going on in Danville, the need for more hotel product is increasing,” said Madison Eades, general manager of the Bee Hotel in Danville.
The 47-room Bee is the only boutique hotel in Danville — at least until its sister property, the Holbrook, starts taking guests — and the only hotel in the city’s River District.
Preparing for growth
Visitor spending in both Danville and Pittsylvania hit all-time highs in 2022, surpassing pre-pandemic numbers from 2019.
The city reported $112.7 million in visitor spending, up 12.7% from 2021. And the county saw $31.5 million in visitor spending last year, up 9.3% from 2021, according to a report by Tourism Economics for the Virginia Tourism Corporation.
And with the Caesars Virginia casino resort on track to open at the end of 2024, these trends will continue, Meriweather said.
Caesars Virginia will be the first full-service property in the Danville-Pittsylvania region, with several bars and restaurants, a spa and pool, and 40,000 square feet of convention space.
A full-service hotel typically has a restaurant, meeting space and amenities like valet parking and room service, Meriweather said. While Danville has a variety of national-brand hotels, including Hilton and Marriott properties, a Best Western and a Quality Inn, it has lacked a full-service option.
“These are all great brands that people are familiar with, but they’re not full-service properties,” Meriweather said.
Convention space, in particular, is a big draw of full-service properties, she said.
Large convention space already exists in Danville, but without a hotel attached.
The Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, a catalyst for regional economic transformation, has more than 25,000 square feet of meeting and event space. It often hosts large events like the Controlled Environment Agriculture summit and the Southern Virginia Housing Summit.
“I remember when they were building that facility, I got a hard-hat tour, and my first comment was, ‘Where’s the hotel?’” Meriweather said.
In June, IALR hosted the Virginia Brownfields Conference, and Meriweather helped set up attendees in room blocks across multiple hotels in the area, including the Hampton Inn, the Quality Inn, the Best Western and the Bee.
“Was that ideal? No. Did we make it work? Yes, we did,” she said.
Caesars’ 40,000 square feet of meeting space won’t diminish the need for other nearby lodging, Eades believes.
“[Caesars is] going to be able to host really large conferences and events,” Eades said. “They’ll have their own hotel, but they will need other hotels in the area to help out with hosting all the conference attendees.”
A ‘crushing need’
There are no new hotels anticipated for Pittsylvania County, which has “a crushing need” for lodging, according to Meriweather.
The Gretna Hampton Inn is joined by just a handful of bed and breakfasts and a motel in the county, which stretches almost 1,000 square miles from the town of Hurt and Smith Mountain Lake all the way down the the North Carolina border, making it the largest county in Virginia.
“At one point, [the Hampton Inn] was the tallest building in Pittsylvania,” said Brian Knopp, regional director of sales at Hilton, which operates Hampton Inns.
Although the hotel doesn’t disclose occupancy numbers, Knopp said that there has been an uptick in guests recently, especially construction employees who are working to build the casino resort.
And on weekends, the hotel sees good traffic from people visiting Pittsylvania for weddings and reunions because “there’s really not anywhere else to stay nearby,” he said.
Tourism drivers like Smith Mountain Lake and the Olde Dominion Agricultural Complex also bring visitors to the county, Meriweather said.
But other than the Gretna hotel, “if you’re headed on highway 29 toward the Campbell County area, there’s a couple of limited service lodging options in the Altavista area, but then your next option is going to be in Lynchburg,” she said.
Many visitors to Pittsylvania may stay in Danville, Meriweather said.
Wanted: a variety of lodging options
Whether the region even needs more hotel rooms depends on who you ask.
City officials have approached Daly Seven, the company that owns the Holiday Inn Express and Courtyard by Marriott in Danville, about adding new hotels to the market, said Noel Anderson, its in-house counsel and real estate director.
“They feel that with this casino being built, there’s going to be a big need for more rooms,” he said. “But the casino itself is 500-plus rooms, so we found it difficult to justify. Why would we want to invest in a market where the market as a whole is running around 60% occupancy currently? We know they’re about to add in an additional supply of over 500 rooms. It just doesn’t really make sense to us business-wise.”
Anderson said that Daly Seven plans to wait until the casino hotel is built and see how that impacts the market.
The two Daly Seven properties, which each have 92 rooms, have occupancy rates higher than the market average for the region, closer to 75%, Anderson said.
And the Bee Hotel’s occupancy rate is even higher than that, around 80%, said Eades.
The Bee opened in 2020 in the former Danville Register & Bee newsroom building, which was originally constructed in 1899. The historic property retained many original features of the newspaper building, like wood flooring and a spiral staircase that once ran from the press room to the editor’s office.
Earlier this year, the Bee Hotel was named a 2022 Travelers’ Choice award winner for being in Tripadvisor’s top 10% of hotels worldwide. It attracts visitors from all over the country and the world, Eades said.
The Bee is often completely booked for big events. Eades said rooms for the weekend of the Blue Ridge Rock Festival sold out months before the event.
TPG Hotels and Resorts, which manages the Bee Hotel, will also manage the Holbrook Hotel, a sister property that is being built between Danville’s Holbrook-Ross historic district and its Old West End.
This 45-room hotel will also be located in a historic property — a doctor’s office built in 1949.
The exact opening date for the Holbrook is “up in the air,” Eades said, but it may be ready to accept guests as early as mid-November.
While boutique hotels offer a more upscale experience for visitors, a variety of lodging experiences and price points are needed in the area, Eades said.
“Everybody has their hotel preferences,” she said. “Some people prefer a more upscale, luxury, boutique experience and some people don’t. I think there are people that will fill up all the hotels [in Danville], so they’re all very needed.”
Some travelers prefer to stay in short-term rentals, like Airbnbs or VRBOs, instead of hotels.
Meriweather said that short-term rentals are usually not promoted by a locality’s tourism department, unlike hotels, traditional bed and breakfasts and even campsites.
But she is open to considering it, she said.
“I would love to see everyone [who runs a short-term rental] register, get their business license, and be recorded,” Meriweather said. “At that point, it would make sense to promote them.”
In the meantime, adding traditional lodging is essential to grow tourism, she said. And adding more boutique and full-service hotels will appeal to a “whole different type of visitor” that perhaps wouldn’t have considered coming to Danville or Pittsylvania in the past.
“If we want to attract affluent travelers with disposable travel income we need to provide them with those types of assets, resources and offerings and experiences to go along with it,” she said.
“There has just been such a disproportionate amount of lodging options at various price points, that once we see those price points and those service levels and brand levels start to rise, we’re gonna see the market pick up too.”