Quiet hurricane season not enough for image, tourism officials say
By Charlotte Libov
Although tourism officials are among those breathing a sigh of relief as the Nov. 30 end of the hurricane season draws near, it will take at least another quiet year to undo the damage wrought by the last two active seasons, they said.
"Clearly, the best thing that could happen to us is to have a quiet year," said David Whitaker, senior vice president of marketing for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. He noted, though, that "brands aren't built overnight. We had two consecutive years of dramatic hurricane activity and dramatic news coverage, so will one year wipe it away? Probably not."
Still, tourism figures for Miami-Dade County remain positive, especially with a business dropoff in hotel occupancy this fall, said William Talbert III, the tourism agency's president and CEO.
He said occupancy in county hotels was the lowest in two years. The most recent figures, compiled by Smith Travel Research, show that in August, the county's room occupancy rate was 61.9%, compared with 67.5% in the same month last year. In September, the occupancy rate was 57%, a 7 percent drop from 64.1% a year earlier.
"Its very difficult to compare a hurricane year with a non-hurricane year because we can show you cases last year where the town was filled up with people leaving other counties. So the number went very high, so the regular year is lower," he said.
According to Mr. Whitaker, the September figures reflected a drop from a month last year when the city hosted one of its largest conventions, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, as well as the MTV Awards show.
"One of the problems we had was that the Fontainebleau closed and the Sheraton Bal Harbour was scheduled to close, so we lost a lot of union business. Union conventions can only be held in union hotels, and there are very few union hotels in South Florida that have enough meeting space," he said.
The Fontainebleau is undergoing renovation. Officials at the Sheraton, which is to be torn down to make way for a five-star St. Regis hotel, have announced the hotel will remain open at least through February.
MTV moved its show this year to New York.
"We fared quite well" for the first six months, Mr. Whitaker said, "considering the loss of the MTV Aawards and anxieties over hurricanes."
Tourism officials are optimistic because of new figures that show Miami International Airport passenger arrivals continue to rise. "You can't just go by hotel figures," Mr. Whitaker said.
He said last year's November figures were artificially high. "Look at what happened last year after (Hurricane) Wilma. Wilma happened the last week in October, so the numbers we'll see from that period last year were high due to all the insurance workers, Florida Power & Light workers and all the displaced Broward County residents who came here because they had no electricity.
"So that shows that the reduction in occupancy for November will have no correlation to the number of actual overnight visitors in town," he said. "That is why we report restaurant sales, retail sales, ticket sales and passengers at the airport. We use a variety of figures."
The occupancy rate in November last year was 79.2%, significantly higher than in previous years.
Miami International Airport recently reported a 4.5% increase in passenger arrivals for the first nine months of the year from the same period last year. The figure was boosted by a 4.2% increase in international passengers and a 2.4% increase in domestic passengers in September, bringing the total to more than 12.2 million passengers arriving in the first nine months of 2006.
At the bureau's recent annual meeting, Chairwoman Marie Sastre announced that based on the first six months, the county is on track to break its 2005 record of 11.3 million overnight visitors.
She also said Miami had retained its sixth-place national ranking for occupancy among the top 25 markets and the county's 74.1% occupancy rate for the first eight months of the year outranked Orlando's, Tampa's and Florida's rates.
She acknowledged that uncertainty wrought by hurricanes hangs over the region. "While we have all worked to dispel the hurricane-season images that perhaps created doubt and uncertainty in the marketplace, we will undoubtedly continue to face this issue next summer."