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Highland Lakes hotels, motels see recovery as people escape to area

Phoenix Nest Guest Houses in Llano

Phoenix Nest Guest Houses has seen its share of visitors in the past few months, says owner Kristie Finberg, including hikers, hunters, and those trying to get away from city life during COVID-19. Courtesy photo

People escaping urban areas during the pandemic are coming to the Highland Lakes, which is good news for the area’s hospitality industry. 

“We have been exceptionally blessed from, really, May due to people being forced to find different activities and outdoor activities to take part in because of social distancing,” said Kristie Finberg, owner of Phoenix Nest Guest Houses in Llano. “With the majority of our (rental) houses, they are in a country-ranch setting that has been very good for that.” 

The Highland Lakes’ rural, less dense setting is one reason why hotel receipts have risen after months of losses, even as COVID-19 rages on. 

The city of Marble Falls saw an increase in hotel receipts by 5.2 percent in July and 11.2 percent in August against that same time period last year, according to figures provided by the Marble Falls Economic Development Corp. Llano has recovered roughly $57,000 of its $84,000 (nearly 68 percent) in revenues with a quarter still to go.

“I think the data shows that Marble Falls has been outperforming the state overall by 20 to 50 percentage points,” said Marble Falls EDC Executive Director Christian Fletcher. “We know that the travel impacts are still being felt on a broad scale, but, in Marble Falls, we’re seeing the same kind of approach and same kind of logic as sales tax. People are more comfortable going to smaller markets, not dense urban environments.”

Marble Falls hotel receipts
Marble Falls hotels and motels are beginning to see some recovery from loss of business due to COVID-19, but they took a hard hit from March through June. Graph courtesy of Marble Falls EDC

In March, Marble Falls receipts dipped 30.2 percent below the previous year. In April, they dropped even further, by 65.4 percent. May, too, was down at 34.1 percent below last year’s numbers, and June was 12.3 percent below last year.

The recovery in July and August is attributable to multiple factors, Fletcher said.

“It’s a combination of things. People looking for easy getaways and wanting to get outdoors, and, obviously, we have a lot of that in the area,” Fletcher said. “It benefits us in good times, but it’s especially benefiting us when the rest of the state is still struggling.” 

Llano, likewise, has outdoor attractions, but a significant amount of local construction has also brought in workers who helped boost hotel and motel as well as bed-and-breakfast occupancy, said Briley Mitchell, executive director of the Llano Chamber of Commerce.

“Even though we had events canceled and our wildflower season was a bust, our motels and bed-and-breakfast locations held their own during the shutdown,” Mitchell said. “Overall, we are down about 30 percent in the city of Llano, but thanks to construction going on to the north of us and with folks that escaped the larger cities to come to Llano, we were far from (zero).”

Mitchell said he has attended as many as 75 different webinars with travel agencies and chamber executives from across the country. Every one of them said to plan for zero customers, but, in reality, the outcome has been far better for the Llano area.

“When you compare it to other areas, it’s not bad,” Mitchell said.

Finberg said four of her six for-rent houses are conveniently located for people heading to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area or Colorado Bend State Park. Those are two big spots for people looking to get away from the bigger, more congested cities and suburban areas.

“That’s been huge,” she said of having places such as the two state parks nearby. “As far as visitors wanting to go, those are the locations they are able to go and enjoy and get away from the other craziness of the world.”