|By Douglas Hanks, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
February 13, 2009 - Amid the traffic and congestion of the Miami International Boat Show, attendees will have little trouble finding at least one thing this year: vacant hotel rooms.
Usually a near-sellout on both sides of Biscayne Bay, the busiest weekend for tourism left major hotels with empty beds.
"This is the first time I ever remember rooms being available for a boat show," said Stuart Weintraub, sales director for the Shelborne hotel in South Beach. "I can tell you we have groups that have been booking for years that are not only not coming to our hotel, but they are not exhibiting" at the show at all.
At first glance, Weintraub shouldn't have much to complain about. Despite the economic crisis, he says about 90 percent of the hotel's 200 rooms are full this weekend.
But with travel to the show down as much as 30 percent, hotels are forced to discount room rates for a weekend that usually brought one of the year's biggest windfalls.
Hoteliers have been bracing for a weak boat show since last fall's economic collapse cut into attendance at similar shows throughout the country.
Walking the docks of a satellite boat show on the Miami waterfront Thursday offered no hint of a slowdown: ruddy-faced salesmen and attendees in Bermuda shorts chatted while would-be buyers removed their shoes for tours on $1 million-and-up yachts.
But veterans of the event noticed less bustle this year.
"The catwalks aren't as busy," said Richard Smeltzer, who flew in from Detroit with his wife, Marsha, for their seventh or eighth Miami boat show. "The bus wasn't as busy on the way over, either."
The big question looming over this weekend's festivities: How bad will the slide be?
Kimberly Wilson, general manager of Marriott Miami Biscayne Bay, said bookings haven't been as weak as she expected. "We're down about 5 percent in occupancy," she said. "A few weeks ago, we were down about 50 percent."
Those last-minute bookings came as hotels cut rates to make up for the boat show's lower turnout amid a sharp rollback in corporate travel and consumer spending. Wilson said she thought rates were down 20 percent.
Raul Leal, whose company, Tecton Hospitality, runs a chain of small South Beach hotels said lower rates actually sent his occupancy rates up this year for the boat show. "It's better than we anticipated," he said.
Largely a trade show for boat dealers, the boat show this year isn't drawing as many exhibitors, show manager Cathy Rick-Joule said.
Boat companies "just are not able send as many people as they'd like to," she said.
Though it handles a small portion of the weekend's hotel rooms, Rick-Joule said the boat show's travel agency reported a 32 percent decline in bookings over 2008's show. The show usually records an attendance of 140,000 people a year.
Hotels that used to sell out weeks before the show still had rooms to sell this week.
Both the Eden Roc and the Fontainebleau, which sit across the street from a popular mega-yacht show, had rooms available in the $400 range. The Fontainebleau even offered a $50 dining gift certificate.
After the 2001 terrorist attacks, the Miami International Boat Show helped mark a turning point for South Florida's recovery as a tourist destination. In February 2002, plunging hotel taxes slowed their descent, finishing the month down less than 20 percent for the first time since September 2001. By the fall, those numbers had inched into positive territory.
During the current travel decline -- with hotel taxes down 6 percent since September -- hoteliers don't see the 2009 Boat Show offering hints of a change.
"9/11 was tough," said Robert Lacle, general manager of the Doubletree Grand, which sits next to the Marriott. "But this to me has the been the slowest start, even after 9/11."
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