|By Douglas Hanks III, The Miami Herald|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Sep. 8, 2004 - Is the hurricane season any time for a convention in South Florida? Tourism officials worry meeting bookers are asking just that after two hurricanes hit Florida and a third might be on the way.
As the vacation season slackens with the start of school and the end of summer, large meetings become more important in South Florida's $17 billion visitor industry. But the back-to-back assaults of Hurricanes Charley and Frances have raised fears that the Sunshine State's image has also taken a bruising and that business groups might prove far less loyal than vacationers.
"We're going to have to salvage the meetings industry in Florida," Nicki Grossman, head of the Broward County convention bureau, told state tourism leaders in a conference call Tuesday to discuss the impact of Frances.
The threat of lost conventions emerged as the top concern in South Florida as tourism officials assessed the storm damage sustained by the region's top industry. They accused Sun Belt competitors of trying to woo conventioneers with warnings of South Florida's hurricane problems.
Frances cost Broward and Miami-Dade's hotel and restaurant industry between $26 million and $31 million in lost revenue over Labor Day weekend, according to estimates released Tuesday by Grossman and her Miami-Dade counterpart, William Talbert III.
They said the region's hotels and tourist attractions were up and running Tuesday, after a storm that forced the evacuation of its prized beachfront hotels and rattled the entire travel industry here.
Royal Caribbean Cruises, which canceled three cruises and switched routes on seven others, said Frances was the most disruptive storm in the line's 33-year history. The Miami-based company announced late Monday that costs from the storm could slash profits by seven to nine cents per share.
USB Warburg predicted a two- to three-cent impact on Carnival Cruise Line shares from the storm.
Talbert said hurricanes have not hurt Miami's image as a tropical getaway. He noted that MTV brought its annual awards show to the city seven days before Frances arrived.
But he also worried that the national coverage of Charley and Frances might discourage meeting planners from recommending South Florida as a gathering place.
"In the longer term, it's on the meeting side that we'll have some challenges," he said.
Last year, group meetings accounted for about $950 million of Miami-Dade's $10 billion in tourism spending but nearly 30 percent of Broward's $7.4 billion.
"It is the segment of our business that is growing," Grossman said.
She added, though, that cities in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee play up the June-to-November hurricane season to lure summer and fall business their way.
"Those states covet our meeting business, and they're out there grabbing it," she said while declining to name the destinations.
She urged Visit Florida, the state tourism agency, to direct marketing dollars toward convention planners and to prevent disruptions from affecting the whole season.
GlaxoSmithKline, the British pharmaceutical company, canceled a meeting at Miami Beach's Fontainebleau Hilton Resort this week that was expected to bring 1,500 people and generate $1.3 million in economic impact, according to county figures.
The Fontainebleau said that the weeklong conference, scheduled to start last Saturday, was called off because of travel complications and that the event would probably be held after the hurricane season has ended.
The Four Seasons in Miami moved three meetings to sister hotels in Chicago, Los Angeles and Mexico City because of the hurricane, a spokeswoman said.
Robin O'Neil, head of event planning for ProActive, a Chicago firm, said hurricane worries don't matter as much as airfare, hotel rates and facilities when choosing convention sites. But she said the string of major storms to hit Florida is bound to make planners more cautious.
"The recent events," she said, "are going to heighten the sensitivity in the marketplace."
--Herald business writer Christina Hoag contributed to this report.
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