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South Florida Hotels Seek to Fill Dates with Conferences in Economic Downturn;
Some Corporate Groups Canceling at Luxury Resorts Fearing Bad Publicity

By Doreen Hemlock, Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Nov. 22, 2008 --In today's tough travel market, South Florida hotels are getting aggressive to lure more groups and meetings to fill rooms.

Associations and other groups plan big meetings often a year in advance, so hotels already have those major events booked.

Now, they're working overtime with tourism leaders to lure smaller events for 2009 and big ones for later to keep the vital industry buoyant.

"With the economy the way it is, individuals will be holding back," said Jorge Pesquera, president of the Palm Beach County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "But groups will take the lead in re-energizing travel."

Groups move big money. In Broward County, groups are roughly 30 percent of the tourism business, and in Palm Beach County up to 10 percent of hotel bookings, officials said. Some hotels depend on group business even more heavily. At the 998-room Westin Diplomat Resort and Spa, groups account for about 80 percent of business, said sales and marketing director Jim Curtis.

But luring groups is no easy pitch in a tight market -- even with discounts, rebates and other perks being offered to them.

In recent weeks, attendance at major meetings nationwide has been off at least 10 percent, according to hospitality consultant Scott Berman of PricewaterhouseCooopers in Miami. Some groups have canceled future events, especially in the financial industry.

And many planners are waiting longer to book meetings to see how markets play out, he said.

The upscale 204-unit Lago Mar Resort & Club in Fort Lauderdale lost a booking for about 30 rooms during the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show in late October, when longtime client Key Bank suddenly shut its marine lending division, hotel owner Walter Banks said. Other corporate groups are trimming events in early winter, leaving January looking soft, he said.

"We haven't seen those kind of cancellations since 2001 or 2002," said Banks.

Some corporate groups are canceling at luxury resorts, so executives won't face bad publicity or a backlash from shareholders while company sales and stock sink. A few are switching to less expensive hotels to talk strategy or recharge, said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In Broward, the group niche for corporate and "incentive" travel, offered for high-performing staff, could drop 5 percent this fiscal year, Grossman said.

Before autumn's financial upheaval, South Florida had been faring relatively well with groups, compared with other U.S. areas.

In the year ended Sept. 30, Broward County booked more than 1 million nights of group business, up 9.5 percent from the previous year. More than 200,000 nights were booked for stays after September 2008, said Christine Tascione, director of convention and group sales for the Fort Lauderdale bureau. Fiscal year figures for Palm Beach County aren't yet available.

Broward's new upscale hotels helped stoke demand. In mid-October, the 2-year-old Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort, which depends on groups for about one-fourth of business, was booking groups at a faster pace for 2009 than in 2008. Its marketing team has revved up outreach, partly to local organizations, said general manager Andreas Ioannou.

Church leader Suzan Jay Cook, an African-American pastor from New York, has been bringing a women in ministry conference to Fort Lauderdale for years. And she's among proponents of a $45 million Gospel Complex in Lauderhill that could lure gospel-related groups for decades.

Nearly 200 people attended Cook's mid-October conference at the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort in Fort Lauderdale, almost as many as last year. She's upbeat on future meetings in the area, because of "strong support from the multi-cultural team" at the Broward convention bureau, she said.

Competiton for groups keeps rising, but tourism leaders see few other options amid a sagging leisure travel market.

Said Steve Crist, vice president of group sales for the Palm Beach bureau: "Group business is the biggest hope for 2009."

Doreen Hemlock can be reached at dhemlock@sun-sentinel.com or 305-810-5009.

<>1 million Hotel room nights booked for group business in Broward County for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30
<> 
<><>+9.5% Increase in bookings over 2007

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Copyright (c) 2008, Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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