WITNESSING A BOOM
Assembly Hall draws crowds, customers for area businesses
Area hotels and restaurants say a new Jehovah’s Witness Assembly Hall in Orangeburg is providing a nice boost for business.
“They are keeping us pretty busy,” said Barry Hood, vice president of Courtesy Management. The company oversees and manages several Orangeburg hotels by the U.S. 601 and Interstate 26 interchange.
“We probably see anywhere from a 25 percent to 30 percent increase,” Hood said. “It is still new for us. This is the first season and we did not get the full potential of a full year.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses opened their 3,000-seat Assembly Hall to the public on Jan. 27. It sits on 58 acres near the intersection of S.C. Highway 33 and Interstate 26, drawing people from more than 300 congregations for semi-annual assemblies.
The center will hold about 40 two-day events annually. It has hosted events just about every weekend in its first five months, with an average attendance of about 2,500, according to Jehovah’s Witness officials.
Fred Herauf, Assembly Hall event booking/rooming coordinator, said groups come to Orangeburg from across the state and beyond. He said they have had to look beyond Orangeburg for places to stay.
“We have negotiated rooms in Santee,” he said. “We have even done some business in St. George and in West Columbia.”
Herauf said, “Our druthers would be to keep the business in Orangeburg. I think the city will see some need for additional hotels other than being a transit stop now.”
If 2,000 people come to an event from a sizable distance, they could use more than 650 rooms, according to estimates by Herauf. Booking schedules will take into consideration Orangeburg’s more significant weekend events such as the Grand American Hunt and Show, South Carolina State and Claflin University graduations and homecoming crowds.
Fairfield Inn Manager Monique Mixson said the hotel room availability depends on the season, with the busier months in early spring and the middle of the fall.
“We have 64 rooms and during our slower months, we have been able to offer them upward of 25 to 30 rooms,” Mixson said. “When things are busier, we have been able to offer them 15 to 20 rooms.”
Mixson said handling the inflow has been smooth because the hotel knows well in advance what to expect.
“I have had to turn down some business,” she said. “It is a huge business for the whole entire area. They get occupancy up and revenues up all the way around and it drives revenues at all the hotels.”
She said the law of supply and demand kicks into effect, impacting room costs.
“It can be overwhelming,” Mixson said. “As soon as they send out emails and letters about an event, our phones start ringing three or four days nonstop.”
Linda Free, manager of Orangeburg’s Fatz, said the visitors are hungry.
“They have really made an impact on the restaurant industry,” she said. “When they are in town, we usually know. It has been great.”
Free said on Assembly Hall event weekends, the restaurant will see about a $1,000 to $2,000 increase in sales for Friday night when many of the Witnesses arrive in the area.
For lunch on Saturdays, the restaurant sees about a $1,000 increase with the largest spike coming Saturday evening between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., she said. “It has impacted Saturday sales about $2,000 to $3,000 a day. A lot stay over on Sundays and it is the same thing on Sunday.”
Free said preparing for the large weekend crowds did not always come easy.
“The first weekend I like to tell everybody that I did not get the memo that they were having an open house,” Free said, noting the wait was about 90 minutes. “The first weekend was tough. We were staffed as normal.”
Now Free coordinates with local hotels to better determine when an event will be in town and coordinate staffing.
“We got it down to a science,” she said. “We know what is going to happen so we are staffed up and prepared.”
During a normal weekend, Free said the restaurant is staffed with about 30 employees. But when the Jehovah’s Witnesses are in town, staff is increased to about 55. From six to eight servers on a normal weekend, now there are up to 16 servers.
“We are keeping up well with the amount of people we are feeding,” Free said.
Herauf said Orangeburg needs more restaurants to handle the crowds.
“I think the city will see that over time. I think we will have a pretty big impact,” he said.
Orangeburg County Chamber of Commerce board Chairman Drexel Ball said, “Right now you can call us a real destination.”
“The early indication is that we may not be able to accommodate all the needs for food and lodging,” Ball said. “In a way, that is a pleasant problem to have.
“Hopefully, based on knowing this is a permanent and ongoing situation, we may be able to attract new business. That potential is there as well. There may be other plans to develop other areas to accommodate this need.”
Ruby Tuesday Manager Tony DeAloia said sales are up 15 to 20 percent from a normal weekend when Assembly Hall gatherings occur.
“We get to see them the whole weekend,” DeAloia said. “We are the busiest Ruby Tuesday in South Carolina. We are pretty much prepared because we have always been used to operating at a high volume.”
In fact, DeAloia said with some Jehovah Witnesses on staff, the restaurant knew well in advance that a conference center was being built.
“They have been coming to our restaurant for the last three or four years,” he said, noting that the church has been having large events in Columbia for years. Many choose to stay and dine in Orangeburg.
“That is how we knew they were building. We befriended them and they have been very good to us,” he said.