- Your News
By Ken Jackson
There is visible change
coming along the West U.S. Highway 192 tourist corridor.
It’s coming from all over — local efforts, state and federal grants and, if you looked closely over the summer and last week, cable TV.
Two weeks ago, the former Four Winds Motel, a low-cost hotel that fell into foreclosure, became the remodeled Victory Villas, with one, two and three-bedroom apartments with all-new flooring and appliances geared to low-income families. The change put a livable situation right along the U.S. 192 transportation routes for a population segment in need, while easing that area’s hotel room inventory.
Less than a mile west and on the same side of the highway, the entire country got to see a transformation, as the Sevilla Inn at 4640 W. U.S. Highway 192 was featured on the Oct. 7 episode of Travel Channel reality show Hotel Impossible.
Show host Anthony Melchiorri, who visits hotels in dire need of improvement, brought his crew in July to help owners Peggy Choudhry and her family turn around a property once full of tourists that became a haven for locals staying long term, some who would eventually refuse to pay.
Choudhry, who has worked hard to improve the area, not just her own property, said she wanted to help“be the change”in the area by reaching out to Hotel Impossible and other reality shows for the good of the local industry.
“I watch those shows because I can relate to the stories,” she said.
Choudhry and her family bought the hotel in 2005, near the height of the recent real estate boom as an investment and a way to bring her family together. Her parents and siblings agreed to come to Kissimmee and help run the hotel together.
“I was an immigration officer in Miami, but we bought a house in Kissimmee so my husband and I were living in two places,” she said. “I had a great job, but I wanted more and didn’t want to play the government politics, so we made the change.”
Choudhry lived on property the first six months of family ownership. She was pregnant at the time and suffered health problems after her daughter was born, at which time her father, Rene Sandoval, took a bigger role in running the hotel. The lifelong entrepreneur gave his best effort, but his lack of industry experience took a toll on the property.
In addition, Choudhry said Sevilla’s clientele began changing in 2009 — corresponding to the downturn in the economy — from tourists to long-term locals with cash to pay for a low-cost room for weeks at a time. The weeks turned to months, and the calendar suddenly changed to 2012.
“The cycle came as a surprise,” she said. “Eventually the problem became people not wanting to leave. We found out people were getting driver’s licenses with our address, and registering their kids for school here. And police officers said they had accepted it. That’s like saying you’re accepting crime.”
Some of the many changes Melchiorri suggested were to remove the long-term renters, raise the room rate and require identification and a credit card to get a room. The change made the hotel tourist-friendly again, and with Victory Village opening, those who couldn’t afford regular apartments had a place to go.
“That conversion was needed, it had never been done right on 192,” Choudhry said. “I’m glad the problem is being addressed, and if it works I hope the county continues it. But if not, we have to find a different solution. The times, situations and the economy changes, and we as a community have to move with it. Osceola County has been a little behind the times, especially on 192.”
Melchiorri brought exterminators in to Sevilla Inn to take care of any bug problems and an expert to redo the pool area. He provided new flat-screen televisions and satellite service and donated a computerized check-in and room management system.
Choudhry said her family, staff, and guests all are more than happy about the new “lease on life” the show provided, but she said the hotel has a long way to go before returning to its most-successful days.
“We’re still in a world of hurt,” she said. “The show helped with upgrades, policies and experts that I couldn’t afford. People are happy about the new policies and new rooms, but the hardest thing is still getting customers. We’re working now on marketing.”
With the help of Hotel Impossible, Sevilla Inn now is listed on travel websites like Expedia, Booking.com, Hotwire and LivingSocial. Its website got more than 1,000 hits each day for the two weeks after the show aired, with a high of 3,200. Guests have come to stay specifically because of the national TV appearance, and many take pictures with Choudhry on the way out.
On Monday morning, Andrea Adams-Miller, husband, Tom Miller, and their two daughters were checking out. They were in town for a cross-country running competition at ESPN Wide World of Sports at Disney. Their daughters’ reservation at the All-Star Resort was confirmed but the parents’ wasn’t, and they made calls all along the U.S. Highway 192 corridor to find one hotel that could accommodate their three-night stay.
“It was an emergency situation that turned out great,” said Adams-Miller, who runs a publishing and publicity firm, The Red Carpet Connection, in Findlay, Ohio. “We were really pleased. My world is about critiquing and looking at things, so yes, we had this place under the microscope. It helped it was so close to food and shopping and had appliances.”
Said her husband: “The rooms here were bigger than at Disney.”
Despite the positives, Choudhry said further changes must come along the corridor. The TV show highlighted a police matter she said she’s been fighting for years. A renter, upon learning he could not check back in without a credit card, called the police. A Sheriff’s Office deputy heard the complaint but made the man leave.
Choudhry started the U.S. 192 Hotel/Motel Association to give the lodging industry in the corridor one loud, unified voice, but some think it’s a little too loud.
“We have owners who are afraid to be part of the association for fear of being retaliated against. I’m invested. I’m not leaving,” she said. “Between all of us in the area, we have 1,000 rooms. We can fill that in a heartbeat. We’re no longer in competition. Eventually I will have overflow and I’ll be sending people to other local places.”