|By Christopher Boyd, The Orlando
Sentinel, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Business News
July 3, 2006--Hurricane Charley pummeled the Crowne Plaza Orlando Airport hotel two summers ago, hurling tree limbs into its massive atrium and tearing holes in its roof. Rainwater gushed into rooms, leaving much of the building uninhabitable.
This summer, as the storm season builds toward its annual peak in August and September, the Crowne Plaza is preparing for the worst Mother Nature might throw its way.
"We are all hoping that we don't have to put our plans into effect, but we are preparing nevertheless," said Shawn Maxwell, the hotel's sales director.
"We are ready to give out flashlights, glow sticks and a gallon of water to our occupants. We are letting our guests know where the safe zones are, both in their rooms and throughout the hotel."
Hotels and tourist attractions that once thought that hurricanes were a coastal problem learned that storms crossing the Florida peninsula can inflict massive damage many miles inland.
Though some of the old cockiness returned after a relatively calm 2005 here, travel-industry businesses no longer trifle with their disaster plans.
Worries about an active hurricane season form an undercurrent in Florida's tourist industry this summer. The Maitland travel research and advertising firm Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell this spring issued a startling annual survey that reported vacationers were most interested in California this summer -- displacing Florida for the first time.
"It was obvious to us that there is a concern in the marketplace tied to the unpredictable nature of summertime weather in Florida," said Peter Yesawich, the agency's chief executive officer.
"In the past 10 years, Florida was consistently ranked No. 1. This was the first time California eclipsed Florida, and it did it with a sizable point spread."
And it's not just leisure travelers who are thinking about other destinations.
"There seems to be a lot of anecdotal information that convention planners are steering clear of Florida in the summer," Yesawich said.
"Very clearly, meeting planners are concerned, and the impact of that has to be long term."
Though the first month of the hurricane season has already passed, the remainder of the half-year season is shot full of unknowns. Bill Peeper, president of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said formation of a hurricane in the next few weeks could damage summer travel results.
"We haven't seen a problem yet, but if Florida gets hit anywhere in the state, there may well be some changes to travel patterns in the leisure market," Peeper said.
Leisure travel is the most vulnerable, because summer-vacation travelers can change plans almost overnight. Generally, there is no penalty for canceling a hotel reservation within a day of arrival, and airline reservations are also fairly easy to alter.
Conventions and conferences, the region's other big source of travel-related income, follow different patterns. While summer is a big season for family vacation travel, July and August are a trough for conventions. But Peeper said business returns in September, and October is part of the peak season for conventions.
"We haven't seen any patterns yet that worry us with regard to cancellations or diverting to different months," Peeper said.
"Central Florida is generally considered a safe haven, and that helps. We hadn't been hit with a hurricane for 40 years before 2004, and we hope that it will be another 40 before we see one again."
Visit Florida, the state government's tourism agency, is also hopeful, but it has a contingency program aimed at easing convention planners' anxieties. It offers a foul-weather insurance package for events scheduled in August, September and October, which compensates for losses from a named storm.
"It's free to sign up for the insurance," Visit Florida spokeswoman Betsy Couch said. "It pays for room differentials and other expenses for an event that was displaced due to a named storm."
Couch said last year 102 organizations signed up for the program, called Cover Your Event Insurance, and two collected. Among other things, the plan covers higher room rates if the canceled event is held anywhere in Florida within a year.
Visit Florida also has a strategy for coping with the worries long-distance leisure travelers might have about vacationing in a hurricane-prone region during summertime.
This year, a sizable portion of the state's $5.1 million summer tourism advertising budget is being spent promoting Florida to Floridians.
"Floridians have a receptiveness to a Florida-vacation message," Couch said. "Floridians don't need as much explanation about hurricanes and seasonal disturbances as others might."
Like the Crowne Plaza Orlando Airport, most Central Florida hotels have storm plans. Hotels are likely to fill to capacity as locals leave their homes and evacuees from coastal areas move inland for shelter.
Michelle Valle, marketing manager for Grande Lakes Orlando, said that since the 2004 storms, hurricane planning has been paramount.
"We always had a hurricane plan, but our staff is way more familiar with it now," Valle said. She said the plan starts with the staff at its twin hotels -- the Ritz Carlton and the JW Marriott.
"We have identified the staff that has to be on property during a hurricane," she said. "We know that the staff that stays will have to go home to prepare their own property before the storm."
The hotels have plans for guests, who may be indoors for many hours as a hurricane passes through. They were tested during the 2004 hurricanes.
"We set up movie theaters in our ballrooms," Valle said. "We also had our staff give complimentary yoga classes and complimentary neck massages to ease the stress."
Hotels aren't alone in making preparations. Tourist attractions, from small draws on International Drive to Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World, all have strategies.
"We have a very detailed set of plans for severe weather including hurricanes," Universal spokesman Tom Schroeder said. "Our plans put safety of our guests and employees at the top of the list, but include how to keep our property safe and how to reopen after the storm blows through."
Walt Disney World spokesman Jacob DiPietre said summer attendance projections are strong. Nevertheless, he said his giant theme park has detailed plans for storm preparation. Last month, the National Weather Service named Disney the nation's first theme park to have a severe-weather alert system in place.
Central Florida's coastal areas are most vulnerable to hurricanes. Rob Varley, executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism in Brevard County, said a number of hotels were seriously damaged in 2004, and several were completely rebuilt.
"Everybody keeps a closer eye on weather than they once did," Varley said.
"Everything here has either been rebuilt or strengthened. A lot of restaurants beachside have added storm shutters that they never had before."
Brevard took a triple hit from hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne in 2004.
Rather than rebuild, several owners have retired or sold their land to developers, which put about a quarter of the county's hotel rooms out of commission and forced three major hotels to rebuild completely.
But Varley said the coast is actually better prepared for another storm as a result.
"The hurricanes actually did me a favor because I now have stronger properties that are built to withstand the weather," Varley said.
As prepared as Central Florida might be, it is still vulnerable. Scott D. Berman, a hospitality industry analyst with PricewaterhouseCoopers, said other tourist destinations won't let travelers forget that.
"The competitors are absolutely trying to win business by trying to scare travelers," Berman said.
"They put the fear of God into consumers. And it isn't without merit. Remember, we are coming off a couple of very difficult years."
Christopher Boyd can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5723 .
Copyright (c) 2006, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.
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