|By Douglas Hanks, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
July 1, 2009 - Don't let a recession fool you. Hotel reservations this Fourth of July weekend might not be so easy to get.
Reduced rates, a Friday holiday, and aggressive efforts by hotels to fill beds with local visitors have combined to make the upcoming weekend busier than dismal unemployment figures and stock tables might suggest.
"We will sell out," said Sarah Murov, spokeswoman for South Beach's largest hotel, the Loews Miami Beach.
As of Tuesday night, all 790 rooms were already reserved for Friday, with 19 left on Thursday and 22 available on Saturday. Murov said the hotel's sales staff didn't expect the vacancies to last through the week.
"Locals are a huge factor," she said. "They're the ones who fill up those last rooms."
The busy holiday doesn't buck a trend: Hotels say their weekend business has held up relatively well, while they've suffered from a lack of workaday bookings amid a sharp drop-off in business travel and corporate meetings.
The biggest change on the hotel landscape has been price. Bookings in Miami-Dade, the region's top hotel market, are down 3 percent since January, while revenue is down 17 percent, according to Smith Travel Research.
The discounting drive continues this weekend, despite the increased holiday demand. With the Fourth falling on a Saturday, most people will have a three-day weekend starting Thursday night. For many suburban dwellers, that means at least one night in a beach hotel to watch fireworks by the sea.
Miami Beach hotels anticipate occupancy of about 81 percent this weekend, all but equal to last year's 82 percent tally, according to the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.
At the Westin Diplomat, the largest hotel in Broward County, a holiday weekend would usually mean high rates and blacked-out dates for summer promotions.
But this year, even a busy weekend remains a buyer's market. Guests can get 50 percent off the regular room rate on Saturday if they pay full price Friday -- a $90 savings as part of parent company Starwood's "Better Tomorrows" promotion.
"They've lifted a lot of holiday weekend restrictions," said Michelle Shulman, the 1,00-room hotel's public relations director. "You should never be calling up and paying whatever the rate is. . . . You get a much better rate online."
Of South Florida's lodging markets, Miami-Dade has the most empty beds this year. While demand has been slightly down, a surge in new rooms -- up 10 percent from a year ago -- gave guests even more of an upper hand.
The Mondrian South Beach, which opened in December, has taken the novel step of renting rooms out for the day -- with guests expected to check in at breakfast time and be gone by dinner. Aimed at spa customers, the $125 promotion is about half off the regular room's rate.
At Canyon Ranch Miami Beach, the Arizona export had once vowed to keep its 70,000-square-foot spa reserved for hotel guests and residences in the adjoining condominium tower. But it recently began offering day passes starting at $275 for Sundays through Thursdays.
LOCALS A PRIORITY
In-state travelers have always been key to South Florida hotels during the Sunshine State's humid, stormy summers. But this year, the local market became an even bigger priority.
At the Newport Beachside Hotel in Sunny Isles Beach, hotel executives anticipate a sold-out weekend for the 312-room oceanfront property. "Mostly locals," said Steven Hurowitz, one of the owners.
A full house won't keep profits where they were last year: Discounted rates have left per-room revenues down about 10 percent.
"I would love to raise my rates," Hurowitz said. "But it just doesn't seem possible in this market."
Instead, the hotel has rolled out a grab bag of wacky poolside promotions aimed at families -- the key focus of local marketing.
This weekend, guests can make red, white and blue Jell-O and compete in a red, white and blue hula-hoop contest. And they can root for their favorite fake horse in the Newport Independence Day Stakes.
The local focus makes Fourth of July a bit more fickle for hotels this year, given the ease a nearby guest can cancel a getaway or simply decide not to book last-minute.
"The biggest influence now on this weekend," said Nicki Grossman, Broward's tourism director, "is the weather."
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