|By Douglas Hanks III, The Miami Herald|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Sep. 27, 2004 - As Florida recovers from its fourth hurricane assault, the tourism industry worries that cleaning up the Sunshine State's image could prove the hardest task of all.
Hurricane Jeanne brought the latest wave of grim media accounts from storm-weary Florida, and churning radar images of a fierce storm once again seemed to cover the entire peninsula.
To counter the negative publicity, Florida's tourism agency wants a $30 million emergency marketing campaign -- more than it spent after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks sent the travel industry into a tailspin. And hotels are pressing conventions to return to Florida next summer and fall amid concerns that meeting planners won't risk letting the weather ruin their events.
"Because of what transpired this year, people will be a little more gun shy about booking during hurricane season," said Barney Lusina, a meeting planner based in Santa Ana, Calif.
The worries could prove particularly acute in South Florida, which is winding down a hotel building boom that has added thousands of new rooms to a market that increasingly looks to the summer and fall for new visitors and dollars.
Indeed, record summer occupancies were expected to make 2004 a symbol of the region's recovery from its 9/11 tourism woes. But the string of hurricane-related disruptions -- including the Labor Day weekend wash-out from Hurricane Frances -- has eroded some of the optimism.
"We already lost Labor Day, which is a very big weekend," said R. Donahue Peebles, owner of South Beach's Royal Palm Crowne Resort Plaza and chairman of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. "What's going to happen to October's business?"
Some 1,000 people had been expected to fly into Fort Lauderdale for the Hispanic Contractors Association's trade show last weekend. But in the wake of Frances and Ivan, more than 400 of them canceled. By the time Jeanne forced the show to call off the event Friday, less than 300 people had made the trip.
"It's been horrible," said Harold Cook, who helped market the event. He said his group saw Florida as "the best place in the world to have a convention. Too bad no one will ever have one again here during hurricane season."
Worried about booking conventions next summer, the sales staff at Miami Beach's Eden Roc resort recently tweaked contracts letting groups reduce their room blocks 90 days out. That would give the groups time to gauge whether hurricane worries had cut into bookings.
"It's a sense of unknowns that make meeting planners crazy," said the hotel's director of marketing, Randy Griffin.
Industry watchers said it's still too early to tell what impact hurricanes Charley through Jeanne will have on the state's $51 billion visitor industry. The flood of clean-up workers and insurance agents into the state sent occupancy rates soaring in many markets, including Palm Beach and Broward. But places far from the damage still suffered consequences from the storms. For the seven days that ended Sept. 18, Miami-Dade's occupancy dropped 22 percent from a year ago, according to the Smith Travel Report.
Visit Florida, the state's tourism agency, said a recent report from a travel-agent booking system showed a decline in inquiries about Florida trips.
Less scientific -- but perhaps more troubling -- are the spike in Internet jokes and political cartoons about Florida's storm woes.
And the Royal Palm's general manager recently had to reassure a woman demanding photographs of Miami Beach's oceanfront as proof that the beach was still there.
"What matters is the picture that the world is seeing of Florida," said Nicki Grossman, president of the Broward County tourism bureau. "We are the Hurricane State."
Her staff plans to send letters from Gov. Jeb Bush to all groups with events booked during next year's hurricane season, urging them to stick with their plans.
Since 1886 no state has suffered four hurricanes in one year, and some scientists say this season signals a more active storm cycle that will cause repeat assaults in the years to come.
Growing nervousness about Florida during the June-to-November hurricane season could spread beyond its top industry, tourism, to other aspects of the economy. "It's going to be difficult to attract businesses to this state if the impression is, 'They get too many hurricanes here, too much damage,' " Grossman said.
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