|By Douglas Hanks Iii And Christina, The Miami Herald
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Oct. 22, 2005 - Hurricane Wilma forced the Fontainebleau to roll up the red carpet for hundreds of publicists, who had planned to start a four-day convention Sunday at the Miami Beach resort.
The Public Relations Society of America faced widespread cancellations among the 2,500 delegates signed up to attend. The lost business -- 1,000 rooms at the Fontainebleau alone and about $1.5 million in spending by delegates -- added to the running tally Wilma is taking out of South Florida's tourism industry, as groups and vacationers stay away in large numbers.
"Group wise, everything went away next week," said Robert Thrailkill, general manager of Miami's Conrad Hilton.
Planners of next week's Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show moved opening day from next Thursday to Saturday. Some South Beach hotels reported losing 60 percent of their reservations.
With tourists ordered out Wednesday, Key West had to knock three days off its annual Fantasy Fest, still set to start Tuesday. Worried about attendance for an event that generates $30 million a year, organizers dispatched a plumed spokesperson to talk up the Fest among the camera crews lined up on Duval Street awaiting Wilma's landfall.
Waiting amounted to the chief frustration for hotels throughout South Florida as a hurricane expected to arrive this weekend stretched its predicted arrival into next week. That's prime time for corporate meetings, a particularly important contingent during South Florida's slow post-summer tourism stretch.
The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau said four small meetings worth about $500,000 in spending canceled because of Wilma and another two postponed. The tourism bureau itself also moved its annual meeting from Tuesday to Nov. 7.
In Broward, the boat show takes up so many hotel rooms and meeting facilities that few other events are scheduled next week, Broward's tourism bureau said.
Wilma added to the anxiety that meeting planners would write off areas like South Florida during the June-to-November storm season.
"The memory of the tourist is decidedly brief," said Peter Yesawich, CEO of the YPB&R travel research firm in Orlando. "But the planners, they think of every conceivable angle that could go wrong with their meeting."
William Talbert III, president of the Greater Miami tourism bureau, said he saw Katrina's assault on New Orleans as helping Florida by reminding visitors that hurricanes can hit most southeastern cities.
"I believe it's no longer a Florida problem," Talbert said. "You can't write off the southeastern part of the United States for six months of the year because of hurricanes."
With the beginning of the week looking like a washout, South Florida hotels hope to salvage next weekend. A nursing group with 625 rooms at the Fontainebleau decided it would start its meeting as planned on Tuesday, a hotel spokesman said, and a cardiology conference that moved to Miami from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina also said it would kick off Wednesday as scheduled.
"We're on," said Dennis Vitrella, conference director.
But hurricanes have taken a toll on the four-day conference. Vitrella had expected about 3,000 attendees in New Orleans. That dropped to 2,000 after the move to Miami, and Vitrella has already lost some of that to cancellations.
The question is how many will show up next week.
'We get everything from 'We're behind you 100 percent,' to 'You've gotta be kidding,' " Vitrella said.
By attendance alone, the PRSA event is the biggest convention casualty so far for South Florida's 2005 hurricane season, Talbert said. The prospect of having hundreds of publicists on a working vacation in Miami Beach makes the loss even greater.
"It would have been great word-of-mouth for our community," said Fontainebleau spokesman Thomas Bruny.
By Douglas Hanks III and Christina Hoag
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