BROOKHAVEN, Miss. – At least one hotel chain has asked some Hurricane Katrina (search) evacuees to check out so it can honor the reservations of incoming guests.
Hilton Hotels (search), the parent company of Hampton Inn and other brands, is trying to find other rooms for the evacuees but said they were warned when they checked in that their stays would be limited by room availability, said Hilton spokeswoman Kathy Shepard.
"We're doing our very best to accommodate these people," she said.
It's an uncomfortable situation for the hotel industry: risk bad publicity for kicking out hurricane evacuees, or anger big-spending repeat customers who travel for business.
Hurricane evacuees — often several family members packed into a single hotel room — can be a burden on hotel staff. They also use more water and electricity, and do not spend much on food and incidentals.
They "could be occupying a room that could otherwise be occupied by a higher-paying guest who's spending lots of money on telephone, food and beverage," said Bjorn Hanson, a hotel industry analyst with PriceWaterhouseCoopers (search) in New York.
Many hotels also have contracts to provide rooms to businesses at a set rate. If the rooms are not available, the hotels risk violating the contract and annoying their best customers, Hanson said.
A Hampton Inn in Brookhaven, about two hours north of where Katrina struck, asked Barbara Perry of Folsom, La., to move out last week. She was living in the hotel with her parents and her three young children, and she was driving almost 90 miles a day to work.
"They told me if I didn't pick my clothes up, they were going to call the police," Perry said.
Her mother, who uses a wheelchair, and her father, who is blind, were also told to check out, but they were granted an extension after a Red Cross volunteer intervened, said Perry's mother, Betty Myers.
Had Perry found shelter in Louisiana, she would have been protected by a Sept. 1 executive order issued by Gov. Kathleen Blanco that bars hotels from displacing a refugee who guarantees payment.
In Mississippi, no such protection exists. Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood has asked hotel managers to let evacuees stay longer, but they are not required to do so. Gov. Haley Barbour "has decided to let the private sector handle those issues without government intervention," said his spokesman, Pete Smith.
Most hotel chains are still giving evacuees priority over guests with reservations, Hanson said. At a Comfort Inn across the street from the Hampton Inn in Brookhaven, assistant manager Amanda Smith said no one was being asked to leave.
"What would you do? They're homeless. You can't turn them away. It's morally wrong. I'd rather inconvenience our people with reservations," Smith said.
Holiday Inn and Choice Hotels International, which markets brands such as Clarion, Comfort Suites, Quality and Sleep Inns, are also encouraging their franchises to give priority to evacuees and emergency workers.