Entering the lobby at the Planters Inn on a brisk January afternoon, guests are met with warm heat, light jazz and a certain calmness that can be expected during one of the quietest months of the year for Charleston's hospitality industry.
But walk across the gardens to the Piazza Annex, and it's hardly a scene of winter stillness.
That side of the Market Street hotel is a beehive of activity, with maintenance and restoration workers busy refinishing bathrooms, painting the roof and polishing tiles, among other tasks.
"Since Charleston has become more popular, there's a growing demand, which means there's a growing expectation," said Nick Saltmarsh, Planters Inn managing director.
The goal is to renovate the hotel's 64 rooms by mid-February. To accomplish that without disturbing its guests, the upscale lodging books rooms on one side of the hotel while workers renovate the other side.
"It's your basic three-ring circus," owner Hank Holliday said, laughing.
Like many hospitality professionals in Charleston, Holliday uses the month of slow business as an opportunity to conduct repairs and renovations at his hotels and restaurants such as Peninsula Grill, Hank's Seafood and Mercato.
January is the only lull month of the year for the tourism industry in Charleston, and it won't be long before business picks up again in mid-February, when the Southeastern Wildlife Expo kicks off the 2014 season.
In a strong tourism month like April or May, Charleston area hotels see occupancy rates of at least 80 percent. In January, it's about 50 percent, said Helen Hill, executive director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Hotels and restaurants in Charleston are using this narrowing window of down time to conduct capital improvements and retrain their staffs. Others are looking to drum up business through annual promotions like Charleston Restaurant Week, which runs through Jan. 19.
Time to rejuvenate
Holliday said that while maintenance is conducted year-round at each of his businesses, the roughly six-week lull provides an optimal and much-needed window for annual work-intensive projects.
"You can't keep pace with the customers' expectations in historic Charleston unless you're fastidious about maintaining your property and keeping it from feeling tired," he said. "At the same time, we have to be very careful not to disrupt our guests, so it's a very calculated operation."
Next door, Mercato has been shut down until mid-February to handle a water penetration issue that bled through the wall from an adjacent building, Holliday said. It's mostly a preventive measure, but it couldn't be done without closing for an extended period of time, he said.
He'll also close Peninsula Grill and Hank's Seafood for a day or two around Super Bowl weekend to refinish the floors, paint the walls and deep clean the kitchens.
Hill of the CVB said her group also looks for ways to make the month more productive for the industry. It hosts educational and training programs each January for hospitality professionals. This year, the bureau has included social media training in its series of workshops, which was attended at nearly full capacity.
"The hospitality industry is a 24-hour business, so in our industry, this time gives us a welcome opportunity to improve not only our physical product but also to rejuvenate our skills," Hill said.
Brian Wander, general manager of Charleston's Renaissance Hotel, said many of his staff members are attending the CVB workshops to polish their skills. "It definitely helps them professionally with their careers and improves their performance at work, but it also helps out Charleston in general as we try to repeat as the number one travel destination in the United States," Wander said.
Time to get ready
Meanwhile, Charleston's food and beverage industry handles the lull period in various ways. ISeveral restaurants have shuttered for a week or longer, such as Cru Cafe and Xiao Bao Biscuit, according to their Facebook pages.
Others have signed on with the Charleston Restaurant Association to participate in Restaurant Week, an 11-day event when local dining establishments offer specially crafted meal deals at discounted prices.
Hospitality Management Group, parent company of high-end restaurants Magnolias, Blossom and Cypress, is updating one restaurant while the others dish up Restaurant Week packages. Magnolias has been shuttered until mid-February for "extensive renovations," said TJ Parsell, president of the restaurant group.
"It's a good time to be able to conduct any repairs and get everybody ready for when business picks up again in February with the Southeastern Wildlife Expo," he said.
He added that the other restaurants are benefiting from an extra push from Restaurant Week by offering meals that are priced well below a typical dinner at the two restaurants.
"Restaurant Week is great for the restaurants because it initiates a busy time, whereas before it was a very slow time," Parsell said. "And it's also great for diners because it gives them an opportunity to dine in restaurants that they may not have otherwise."
This year, the restaurant association is partnering with several hotel groups around town for some cross-promotions. Charlestowne Hotels, Charming Inns and Marriott Hotels in Mount Pleasant are offering discounted rates during Restaurant Week. Participating locations include the Wentworth Mansion, Fulton Lane Inn, Holiday Inn Express and about a dozen more lodgings in the region. "For those who want a mini 'staycation' or are coming in from out of town, it's a great deal," said Linn Lesesne, spokeswoman for Charming Inns.
Like the Planters Inn and others, several of the Charming Inns hotels are undergoing renovations while business is slow.
"We take this month to do major updates or repairs," Lesesne said. "Because it's so slow, it's a good time to do it."
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.