By Matt Sullivan
Special to Delaware Business Times
A popular pope, crowd estimates ranging from 1 million to 2.5 million and early studies that showed a potential economic impact approaching a half billion dollars.
It’s no wonder that some in Delaware harbored early hopes that some of the dollars spent by pilgrims on their way to the World Meeting of Families and subsequent appearances by Pope Francis in Philadelphia would spill over into Delaware. After all, Philadelphia proper has only 11, 500 hotel rooms. Surely, a time would come when there would be no more room at the inn.
Except … that time hasn’t come yet. As of last week, multiple hotels in center city Philadelphia — the Westin, the Hyatt, the Loews — had rooms available the weekend of the pope’s visit in September, albeit in the $500-$600 price range.
And even if those rooms will likely be gone by the time the Popemobile rolls through the city, the hotel crunch that many expected has not arrived.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s spreading out too much into the suburbs — other than New Jersey and Pennsylvania,” said Bill Sullivan, managing director of the Marriott Courtyard Newark at the University of Delaware and chairman of the board of the Greater Wilmington Convention & Visitors Bureau.
One reason the traffic is not coming to Delaware: The World Meeting of Families put out an early request for proposals from hotels willing to host papal groups, but the terms were so fluid — including no-penalty cancelations — that few, if any, Delaware hotels responded, Sullivan said.
Individuals and independent groups may still book in Delaware, of course, and rooms are still available at lower rates than their Philadelphia neighbors, though some have bumped rates a bit higher than usual. (Most weekends do not find the Super 8 in New Castle asking for $300/night, as it’s currently listed on Expedia.)
Those who do stay in Delaware still have to find a way to get into Philadelphia, and each method has its own challenges. Jeanne Davis, customer service manager at Delaware Express, said her fleet is fully booked for that weekend, even though motor coaches and buses face a $400 surcharge for parking near the drop-off zone that weekend — a drop-off zone that may be more than a mile away from where people want to be.
“It’s a mess,” she said. “It’s going to be a headache for the driver, and people are going to complain that he’s dropping them off so far away.”
Another way, of course, is by train — for people lucky enough to win a ticket in SEPTA’s Papal Pass Lottery. Through the lottery, SEPTA plans to distribute 175,000 regional rail passes for each day of the weekend, with 10,000 tickets allocated for people travelling from the Wilmington train station through Marcus Hook, and then directly to the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia.
The train station will open at 4 a.m. for trains that will leave starting at 5:30 a.m. each day. City groups and SEPTA have already met to discuss how to handle the security, parking and other logistics involved in shuttling 10,000 travellers through the city and train station.
“We believe that there’s going to be a lot of folks driving into Wilmington, parking and going to the train station,” said Mike Maggitti, director of operations at Downtown Visions. “We hope, of course, that they’ll patronize some downtown businesses while they’re at it.”
But he acknowledges that not many downtown businesses are usually open at 4 a.m. on a weekend — and it’s still unknown whether people who win the SEPTA lottery will stay in local hotels over the weekend.
The Greater Wilmington Convention & Visitors Bureau hopes to use the event to showcase the area — and bring people back. The GWCVB plans to saturate the Philadelphia market — the airport, visitors centers and hotels — with copies of its annual visitors guide, printed earlier than usual this year to take advantage of papal crowds.
“Events that happen in Philadelphia are always a way for us to elevate our destination — Wilmington and the Brandywine Valley — because there are easy day trips,” said Sarah Willoughby, executive director of the GWCVB. “They get a taste of the area, and our goal is that once they do, they want to come back.”