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Midlands hotel rooms filling up as coastal residents flee storm

Hospitality and Tourism
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Updated 4:41 p.m. today

Midlands hotels were mostly booked even before the Gov. Nikki Haley’s evacuation order for the Lowcountry kicks in this afternoon.

The emergency order, which calls for residents of Charleston and Beaufort counties to evacuate to an area 100 miles from the coast, was issued Tuesday. Haley said the evacuation of 1.1 million coastal residents would begin at 3 p.m. today.

By late Tuesday afternoon, area motels reported that evacuees were streaming into the Midlands, said Katie Montgomery, director of communications for the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Reports from hotel operators along Interstate 26 in the West Columbia and St. Andrews areas indicated that people arrived early to beat what’s likely to be a slow, grinding trip up the highway to the Columbia.

“They were all hands on deck working to get ready,” Montgomery said, referring to Midlands hotel operators.

The Midlands has about 120 hotels, said Bill Ellen, president and CEO of the Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports & Tourism.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said in an email that “hotels in the area are doing what they can to accommodate as many people as possible.”

Additionally, airbnb has activated its Disaster Response Program to help evacuees find shelter in the Columbia area free of charge, Benjamin said.

“If you are not currently an airbnb host but would like to host evacuees, you are able to sign up on their website,” the mayor added.

Airbnb is an online marketplace for people to list, find and rent vacation homes for a processing fee. The website has more than 1.5 million listings in 34,000 cities and 191 countries.

One reason for the squeeze on hotel space is that the University of South Carolina has a home football game Saturday night with Southeastern Conference foe Georgia at Williams-Brice Stadium.

Usually 7,000 to 8,000 of some 12,000 available rooms in Lexington and Richland counties are booked by fans attending a USC night home game, Ellen said.

Haley said at Tuesday’s news conference that it would be up to USC and conference officials to make the call on whether the game, scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m., would be played at Williams-Brice, rescheduled or moved to another site.

At this morning’s press conference updating Matthew’s progress, Haley said “plenty” of rooms were still available in the Upstate “but the Midlands are pretty full.”

But by late morning most Upstate rooms were booked.

Greg Greenawalt, general manager of the Crowne Plaza in Greenville, said that hotel is sold out through Saturday.

Barrett Alexander, general manager of the Hampton Inn & Suites at I-26 in Spartanburg said his property has experienced a constant barrage of phone calls since Haley made her initial call for evacuation on Tuesday.

“The phones have been ringing off the hook,” Alexander said. “We couldn’t put anyone on hold fast enough.”

He said Spartanburg was experiencing the same issues as Greenville in that there is a lack of hotel rooms open for the weekend. He said he only had about 14 rooms available before Haley’s announcement and those rooms were taken very soon after the governor’s press conference concluded.

While he hasn't lchecked with markets outside of South Carolina, Ellen said that people looking for a room might call hotels in the Charlotte area, about 70 minutes north of Columbia.

"They've got a lot of rooms in Charlotte and it's not too far away," Ellen said.

GSA Business Report editor Matthew Clark contributed to this article.

Reach Chuck Crumbo at 803-726-7542.

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