|By Tom Stieghorst, South Florida Sun-Sentinel|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Sep. 17, 2004 - As Kim Brancamp and her husband arrived in Palm Beach Shores on Wednesday night for a business conference, it was evident not everything was normal. Billboards were blown over, trees uprooted and many restaurants were closed.
On the other hand, it was a sunny day on Thursday and the beach was calling the couple, who live in suburban Chicago. They plan to stay for the next three days of their conference unless Hurricane Jeanne heads to South Florida.
At the Crowne Plaza Oceanfront where they are staying, functions are 95 percent back to normal, said Larry Demme, director of resort operations. The main obstacle to reopening after the storm was lack of electricity.
The hotel finally got back on the grid on Sept. 9. "The power came on at 5:30 p.m. and we had the doors open by 7 p.m.," Demme said.
Across Palm Beach County, the lights are beginning to flicker on again for the tourist industry. That's especially true in Palm Beach Shores, one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Frances over Labor Day weekend.
Just after the storm, Demme said the 193-room property looked awful.
Every tree was blown down, fences were toppled, and there was glass in the pool from the shattered windows of a condominium tower up the street.
"Our hotel prides itself on looking lush and tropical, and right now it doesn't," he said.
But many of the current guests are not here for the scenery. Over two thirds of the rooms at the Crowne Plaza are occupied by FPL crews.
Likewise, power crews and displaced residents have the 60-room Rutledge Inn sold out said front desk manager Jose Almeida. That's good, because the hotel was dark for a week after the Sept. 2 evacuation order. It spoiled a premium Labor Day weekend. "Everybody cancelled," Almeida said.
Other hotels that have reopened or will reopen on Singer Island this weekend include the 219-room Palm Beach Shores Resort, the 321-unit Marriott Ocean Pointe and the 222-room Hilton Singer Island Oceanfront Resort.
They are accepting business even though most of the traffic signals on the island have yet to be repaired and piles of soggy carpet line the east side of North Ocean Drive.
The damage has many hotels reducing their rates. Demme said the Crowne Plaza reopened with rates about 30 percent below normal, and has gradually been moving them up.
Countywide, it is still too early to assess the impact of hurricanes on the September bed tax collections, said Charles Lehmann, executive director of the Tourist Development Council. While some hotels closed for Frances, those that didn't evacuate have been packed.
And hotels in the southern end of the county, such as the Boca Raton Resort & Club, closed only for a few days.
Hurricanes come at the low-point for tourism to South Florida, Lehmann pointed out. Last September, countywide occupancy was 52 percent. A few points either side of that isn't going to upset anyone's year, Lehmann suggested.
"If this was December, I'd be a little more concerned about it," he said.
Several luxury resorts on Palm Beach have been in no hurry to reopen. The Breakers, in Palm Beach, and the Ritz-Carlton, in Manalapan, both expect to reopen next week, and representatives said they want to be sure their grounds look presentable.
"We obviously want to make sure it's up to Ritz standards," said Ritz-Carlton spokeswoman Crissy Poorman.
In addition to power, a secondary problem has been access for purveyors and suppliers, Poorman said. Hotels also have staff members who have lost homes or electric power and may not be able to return to work full time.
Next week, the tourism industry will gather at the PGA National Resort in Palm Beach Gardens for a quarterly board meeting of Visit Florida, which promotes tourism to the state. The Tuesday meeting was rescheduled from Sept. 14 because of Hurricane Ivan.
With Ivan's landfall in the Florida panhandle, the group will likely raise what it plans to spend on ads urging travelers to come to Florida. It had already earmarked $304,000 from a $2 million emergency fund to address fears about hurricane damage.
Some hotels said that at the end of the month they don't think that September will prove to be such a disaster after all.
Demme said most of his functions scheduled for early September are re-booking for late September or October. And the extra FPL business is offsetting the losses from the seven days the Crowne Plaza was closed.
Although beach erosion means the water's edge is about 15 yards closer to the hotel, the upside is less of a hike to the shore for guests. He said the storm tapered the hump shape of the beach, making it more attractive. "We think it looks nicer," he said.
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