HARLINGEN — In an industry reeling amid record losses since the coronavirus outbreak, the city’s hotels are scrambling for business as their biggest competitor enters the market.

The new $25 million, five-story Hilton Garden Inn, attached to the Harlingen Convention Center, is “100 percent booked,” sales and marketing Manager Steven Villarreal said last week, offering 149 rooms and a full-service restaurant and bar.

Villarreal said Hilton’s program offering discounts to return customers helps book the hotel, which opened in late November as the Rio Grande Valley’s first full-service convention center hotel.

Like Jay Rama, many of the city’s hotel managers are bracing for the Hilton Garden Inn, owned by San Antonio-based BC Lynd Hospitality, to eat into the area’s shrunken customer base.

“They took away business going to the hotels in town,” Rama, owner of Country Inn and Suites by Radisson, said. “Business travel’s basically at a dead halt. More rooms and hotels make it more difficult.”

City hotels faring better

In Harlingen, hotels are apparently doing better business than in many parts of the country, Assistant City Manager Gabriel Gonzalez said.

Across town, hotel occupancy reached about 60 percent during 2020 — that’s about 15 percent higher than the national average, he said.

While the city collected $1.1 million in hotel occupancy tax revenue during fiscal year 2019, revenue dropped to $879,705 from January to November 2020, city records show.

“Overall in the Valley, they’re down but not as much as they are across the country,” Gonzalez said. “We haven’t done anything different — we just keep promoting the city. The hotels are marketing themselves. They’re doing a great job of attracting business and industry to the city.”

Nationwide, hotel occupancy plunged to a record low of 44 percent during 2020, down 33.3 percent from the year before, as a result of federal guidelines and state orders aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus, according to Hotel News Now.

Pandemic biggest factor

While the Hilton Garden Inn brings a big-name competitor to town, the pandemic and its restrictions stand as the stiffest challenges facing the city’s hotels, said Heriberto Aguilar, general manager of Hampton Inn & Suites by Hilton who serves on the city’s Convention & Visitors Bureau Advisory Board.

“It hit us pretty seriously,” he said. “The biggest factor in our area is the pandemic and the limit on corporate travel because of all the restrictions. Corporate travel is the big thing here given the airport.”

Local construction, traveling nurses assisting with the COVID-19 cases at local hospitals and other business ventures in the area are keeping Harlingen hotels booked. (Maricela Rodriguez/Valley Morning Star)

Air travel slowly picking up

At Valley International Airport, the region’s biggest airport whose central location draws business travelers from across the area, boardings were down 41 percent during 2020, Marv Esterly, the airport’s aviation director, said.

But the numbers have climbed since April, when they dropped to 92 percent, with just 2,533 passengers boarding planes, he said.

Last month, 17,165 passengers boarded planes here, he said.

“Definitely the numbers have picked up in the last few months,” Esterly said. “The numbers have steadily risen. Every month we’ve seen an increase.”

Riding out the storm

Meanwhile, Courtyard by Marriott, which offers a full-service restaurant, is bucking the national trend, with business remaining strong despite the pandemic’s restrictions, said Michelle Lopez, the hotel’s sales director who serves on the city’s Convention & Visitors Bureau Advisory Board.

“It’s been a real heavy year for us, too,” she said, referring to the Hilton Garden Inn’s strong bookings. “There’s been a lot of activity.”

Along with the pandemic, traveling nurses and other health care workers have been staying at the hotel to help treat COVID-19 patients at area hospitals, she said.

Meanwhile, she said, construction projects continue to draw workers to the hotel.

“There’s been a lot of construction,” she said. “The Valley’s real strong in that area. We’ve been very fortunate.”

Now, leisure travel is making a comeback, she said.

“There’s a lot of leisure travel,” she said. “A lot of people are hitting the road to see family and friends.”

Tragically, many families are staying at the hotel to attend funerals of COVID-19 patients who’ve died as a result of underlying medical complications.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people are coming because they’ve had deaths in the family,” Lopez said.

In Harlingen, the city’s newest hotel carrying the Hilton brand isn’t just a competitor.

The Hilton Garden Inn is also drawing business to town, Lopez said.

“If anything, it’s going to give more of a brand recognition to the area,” she said, noting her hotel offers a full-service restaurant. “It’s good to have the ability to have dinner and drinks on site. Now there’s going to be more options for that traveler.”