Sunday, September 12, 2010

Natural Gas Drillers Fill Local Hotels and Motels

Hotels in areas nearest gas drilling operations are boasting 30 to 50 percent increases in overnight stays thanks to the influx of personnel extracting natural gas from the rich deposits located 5,000 feet or more under the ground.
Philipsburg’s Harbor Inn packed gas workers into 25 of its 65 rooms from January through June, according to general manager Dolores Hollabaugh.
“Our winters are usually really slow, and having them brought us way up,” Hollabaugh said. “Revenue went up 40 percent.”
Before their arrival, the presence of gas drilling in the rural western and northern parts of the county was news to Hollabaugh.
“I didn’t know anything about the Marcellus Shale before the whole gang of them walked in one day. It was a total surprise to me,” she said.
Several hotels and motels near the drilling sites reported sizable boosts in their occupancy rates.
Gas workers started arriving in the area as early as January 2009. Their numbers have increased so much so that several places that previously only filled up on Penn State football weekends now report they’re regularly booked up once or twice a week.
Front desk clerks tell stories of
groups of 40 to 50 employees from companies such as U.S. Energy, Superior Well Services and Halliburton arriving unannounced in the middle of the night and staying for months at a time. Those same clerks also tell of groups of 60 or more planning on staying five weeks and leaving unexpectedly after five days.
The gas rush hasn’t yet completely overrun the county’s hotels, as it has in the state’s northern tier, where more drilling has taken place.
So far, hotels nearest the sites of ongoing drilling — which is occurring mostly in Rush, Boggs, Snow Shoe and Burnside townships — are benefiting the most, though some hotels in State College have also seen some gas worker traffic.
A number of hotels in State College and the eastern part of the county haven’t seen any gas workers stay with them — yet. But many local hoteliers said they think that will change in coming years as more wells are drilled in the county, and are eager for increased Marcellus Shale action to hit the area.
Raj Dave, manager of the Comfort Inn in Lamar, Clinton County, said his hotel got a taste of the possibilities Marcellus Shale development may bring to the area when gas workers who had been staying in Williamsport had to leave because their rooms were rented out for the Little League World Series last month.
“Maybe we’ll see an increase in the future, if there’s more drilling in the area,” he said.
Advice from Williamsport
The gas industry has hit full force in Williamsport, where local hotels are now booked solid for months in advance.
Jennifer Locey, general manager of Williamsport’s Holiday Inn Express, said her hotel’s occupancy rate has risen 30 percent in the past year.
She said when more drilling happens in Centre County, local hoteliers can expect large numbers of long-term lodgers, and special requests from guests with unusual schedules.
“They’ll run their hotels as an extended-stay property,” Locey said. “To serve their guests well, they need to look at what long-term guests are looking for, things like laundry facilities or other amenities they might be able to find at home.”
Susan Oliver, a spokeswoman for the energy firm Williams, said the company looks at two factors when choosing a hotel for its employees: first, that the hotel is a member of its local chamber of commerce; and secondly that it gives “a great corporate discount.”
Shaner seeks an ‘in’
In advance of the incoming tide, the Shaner Hotels group launched a website,, designed to market its regional accommodations to gas companies.
Through the site, Marcellus- related companies are being offered discounts for booking stays at any of the eight Shaner hotels, located in State College, Milesburg, Lock Haven and Pittsburgh. The effort appears to be paying off, as large white pickup trucks with industry labels on the doors are now ubiquitous at the Shaner’s Williamsburg Square development in Patton Township, home to three of the company’s hotels.
On one night last week, Luis Hernandez idled by his truck near Shaner’s SpringHill Suites, where he was in the midst of a three-week stay. He has traveled around the country constructing drilling rigs for Patterson-UTI Energy, and had been in other parts of Pennsylvania for about a year before arriving in State College.
Hernandez has to be out of the hotel by 5 every morning in order to make it to his work site in Clearfield County on time, and he frequently works until 7 p.m. or later.
“I’m from Odessa, Texas,” he said. “But I live in my hotel room.”
Conferences help hotels
Marcellus Shale is benefiting hotels in State College through other means than housing gas workers. Penn State recently launched the Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, which Jim Purdum, general manager of hospitality services for Penn State, said is likely to boost State College’s profile as one of the hubs of Marcellus development.
One of Penn State’s hotels, The Penn Stater Conference Center, has already made out well from the gas boom, hosting a number of Marcellus-related conferences that bring in revenue from food and beverage sales and overnight accommodations for conference attendees.
“There’s no question it’s having a positive impact on the hotel,” Purdum said.
The Penn Stater will once again host the annual Marcellus Summit in October, which brings hundreds of people related to the industry into the hotel. Purdum said he believes The Penn Stater, with its large conference facilities, is well-positioned to host additional similar events in the future.
“We think we’re just at the start of it,” Purdum said. “We’re paying attention to what opportunities there are, and we’re anticipating more events surrounding learning more about the industry.”

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