In US border towns, influx of troops brings a boom
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Now, hotels are often booked at least a week or two in advance and up to a month during the winter season. It's not uncommon to place five or six calls before finally securing a room.Skip to next paragraph
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Outside the Best Western Coronado in downtown Yuma, for example, several pairs of National Guard soldiers and airmen – cases of bottled water piled beside them – sit on white plastic chairs outside their rooms in the evening.
"I would say 70 percent of our winter occupancy is military and government contractors at this point," says Jeanine Rhea, president of the Yuma Hotel Association and general manager at the Hampton Inn and Suites in the town. "Some hotels have blocked out 10 to 15 rooms because [the National Guard and military in general] stay for longer periods."
Many of the guardsmen stay in what are considered "budget" hotels because the government's per diem rate allows only $71 for lodging here. Out of the 33 hotels in Yuma, 27 would be considered "budget" hotels, estimates Ms. Rhea, and those hotels have approximately 2,000 rooms available.
Most of those guardsmen staying at local hotels eat out. Indeed, the restaurant business is booming.
Buffalo Wild Wings, for example, is a popular watering hole for the troops. It features large-screen TVs for sports viewing (even in the rest rooms). Business has definitely picked up since the National Guard has come to town, according to Sara Farmer, a manager. It has added both longer hours for serving food and more staff.
"This seems to be the hangout for them," she says, adding, "Lots of them come from Virginia, Washington," and other faraway places.
Management has added a "blazing challenge," she says, where the challenger, often a military type, must eat 12 chicken wings in the restaurant's "hottest" sauce. "About 75 percent of them are able to accomplish it: They have all their friends cheering them on," she says.
The winners, often red-eyed, with noses running as they finish, are awarded T-shirts, and their photos are posted on the wall.
Other restaurants, as well, have rolled out the welcome mat for the National Guard. Ernesto Santos, manager at the Outback Steakhouse, says that as soon as the National Guard troops were deployed to the border, his restaurant offered them a 20-ounce rib-eye steak for the same price as its regular 14-ounce rib-eye steak.
"I try to talk to each and every one of them that comes in," Mr. Santos says. "The conversation piece is that rib-eye: I challenge them to finish it [nobody so far has been able to] and tell them it gives them extra protein to protect the country."
But in all seriousness, he says, both management and other customers appreciate the National Guard presence. "We especially appreciate that most of them are far away from their families. They come in here to eat, go home to sleep, and do it all over again," he says.
Meanwhile, several national chains are opening new restaurants here, according to Mr. Ingram of the visitors bureau. And 1,600 more hotel rooms are being built and will be available by 2008, according to Rhea of the hotel association.