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Florida's Annual Tourism Conference Cheered the Hope That Things Aren't Getting Worse;
Steep Hotel Discounts Giving Way to Stability

By Douglas Hanks, The Miami HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Aug. 25, 2009--Facing a grim year, Florida's tourism industry gathered in Miami Beach Monday and took comfort in the public's ingrained urge to vacation.

"The really good news for everyone in this room is travel has absolutely remained a priority," Will Seccombe, chief marketing officer for Florida's tourism agency, told about 600 travel executives gathered at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach for the annual Governor's Conference on Tourism.

And while the setting proved Seccombe's point -- the Fontainebleau's pool was crowded while the morning and afternoon sessions were going on in the cavernous main ballroom -- the bulk of his remarks added to the generally glum mood at the two-day conference.

With Visit Florida, the state tourism agency, losing $10 million amid state budget cuts, Seccombe sliced about $8 million from Florida's usual push to bring vacationers into the Sunshine State, leaving $9 million for the task. Visit Florida even turned to Floridians themselves to recruit tourists, urging residents to "Share a Little Sunshine" by inviting out-of-state loved ones to visit.

"We have less money. We have less resources," Seccombe said. "I, for one, do not expect any miracle recoveries."

Chatter at the conference underscored one other bright spot: There was no talk of hurricanes, often the No. 1 crisis facing the tourism industry at the late-August gathering. But the economy dominated conversation , with most executives cautiously declaring an end to the industry's decline.

"I think we've kind of hit the bottom," said DT Minich, executive director of St. Petersburg-Clearwater tourism bureau. "We're hearing a lot more confidence out there in the travel trade."

Most travel executives said the summer seemed to stop the steep decline in room rates that has plagued South Florida hotels since last autumn's global financial meltdown.

New numbers from Smith Travel Research, which tracks hotel trends, mostly bolstered that trend.

In July, the average hotel room in Miami-Dade -- South Florida's largest hotel market -- went for $117 a night, just 9 percent less than a year ago. That's a huge switch from March, when rates were down 18 percent. Occupancy fell six points to 64 percent.

In Broward, July brought a bit of bad news. Room rates dropped 12 percent to $89 a night, the first double-digit decline since April. But the bargains helped fill beds: occupancy dipped just three points to 60 percent.

The Keys led Florida in both occupancy levels and room rates, with hotels actually fuller in July than a year ago (occupancy increased from 76 percent to 79 percent). But the discounting trend continued, with the average room going for $153 a night -- down 10 percent from a year ago.

Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association, said recent figures nationwide show a plateau, but he cautioned that there's still room to fall given the right push. "Swine flu is the wild card," he said.

Dow also said he was concerned the healthcare debate could hurt hotels, as critics of the insurance industry search for the kind of lavish corporate meetings held by bailed-out financial firms in the fall. Backlash from that -- dubbed the "AIG effect" -- could erase what Dow sees as signs of recovery.

"I think it's hit bottom," he said. "as long as we don't have anything really wrong happen."

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Copyright (c) 2009, The Miami Herald

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