Tourism officials giddy with anticipation for annual numbers
By Charlotte Libov
Propelled by a strong December spurt, Miami is teetering on another record tourism year.
We'll learn for sure in mid-January, said William D. Talbert III, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitor Bureau, when statistics for all of 2006 are in.
"It's early, but the statistics for the first several months of the [bureau's fiscal] year have shown this to be the case, and the occupancy figures in December continue to be up," he said.
According to tourism officials, Miami's hotel occupancy was up 3% in the first two weeks of December over the same time last year at 75.6%. In addition, the average hotel room rate for the period was $155.09, up 23.8% over the same time in 2005.
But, Mr. Talbert noted, it's difficult to know for sure if this year will set records because last year's hotel occupancies in November were inflated by construction workers who flooded in after Hurricane Wilma. Those workers helped set a visitor record for 2005 of 11.3 million persons, 3.1 million over 2004. If this year is a record-setter as well, Mr. Talbert said, it would be significant because it would be achieved without a disaster's stimulus.
He said he's optimistic we might set a new tourism high because overnight airline passenger figures for the first nine months of 2006 rose 2.8% from the same period in 2005. Those nine-month numbers were 8,608,060 for 2006, compared with 8,373,000 for the same months of 2005.
"In the old days … you would see peaks and valley, but in looking at most of the monthly figures, you don't see that anymore," Mr. Talbert said. Tourism used to spike during the winter, then plummet in the summer.
Mr. Talbert said spurring the robust numbers have been a growing number of special events and festivals, including the just-completed Art Basel Miami Beach.
Forthcoming events beginning Jan. 2 with the Orange Bowl and continuing with the Art Deco Weekend in January, Super Bowl, the Miami International Boat Show, the Miami Beach Food and Wine Festival and the Coconut Grove Art Festival in February and will continue to build visitor numbers, he said. "If you look at events, it's boom, boom, boom, boom, one after the other."
Jeff Lehman, general manager of the National Hotel, who is on the Miami Beach Convention Center Advisory Board, credited an increase in business travelers for part of the growth. In addition, he said, it helps to know how to market in both the winter and summer seasons. He said the National will close December with a 97% occupancy rate.
"The Beach stays full now all year long," he said, and hotels can do very well "if you properly understand the difference between the Art Basel guest and the July 4th guest. It's the difference between the people that can pay $800 a night in the winter and the people who are able to pay $250 a night in the summer."
Nowadays, he said, marketing to these groups includes advertising, e-mail blasts and "putting your rates out there on an appropriate level – that's really what it's all about."
"Obviously, we can't lower our rates and throw everything out there to fill the hotel because that's not what we are going to do," Mr. Lehman said, so for the National, using up-to-date technology to communicate with repeat guests is a proven formula.
"There was a time when if you offered a room in the winter for $750 and during the summer for $250 to the same guest they would be offended, but now they understand," he said, and tend to take advantage of the rate difference. "When you're in Chicago in March, you want to come down to Miami."
Marketing Director Jennifer Vandekreeke said the Biltmore's occupancy is "significantly ahead of last year's," due in part to the Coral Gables hotel's new $2.5 million spa.
In addition, she said, Miami's image is changing. "Miami is a very hot destination. We've got the new Carnival Center for the Performing Arts, and Art Basel has become a very important cultural event. Miami's reputation is being raised from a party place to a place where there is also arts and culture."