|By Hannah Sampson, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
August 07, 2010 --During Hurricane Wilma, Juan G. Robbin left his Key Biscayne home behind and waited out the storm in relative comfort at the Biltmore Hotel.
"They still managed to serve us breakfast," Robbin said.
To make sure he has the same opportunity when the next storm comes along, Robbin signed up for the hotel's program that guarantees a room at a specific rate during a hurricane, no matter how many people are calling for a place to stay.
While the Biltmore's "priority access" program appears to be unique -- and not for everyone, considering fees start at $720 -- hotels throughout South Florida are dusting off their storm plans for a season that is expected to see plenty of activity.
Tropical Storm Colin, the third named system of the season, formed and fizzled earlier this week. With a busy hurricane season of 14 to 20 named storms predicted, inland hotels have the rare opportunity to maximize on their lack of proximity to beaches.
"A lot of the very nice hotels, high-end hotels, do tend to be oceanside or east of U.S. 1," Robbin said. "You're really defeating the purpose of going from an island to some place next to the water anyway."
Locations outside evacuation zones are also attractive to companies, which often have contracts in place to reserve meeting areas and blocks of rooms when storms come.
The Coral Springs Marriott Hotel, Golf Club & Convention Center has agreements with three different companies to use meeting space and rooms as long as there is availability. They also offer companies and the public the employee rate of $79 a night for rooms, depending on availability, in case of an approaching storm -- far lower than average daily rates.
"We're not trying to really make money off of someone else's distress," said Justin Nels, sales director.
At Hyatt Regency Bonaventure, a pet-friendly hotel west of Interstate 75 in Weston, residents looking to flee a storm get 20 percent off published rates.
"We'll be as flexible as we can be," said sales and marketing director Joe Kramer. "We're not there during tough times to take advantage of anybody."
Shula's Hotel & Golf Club in Miami Lakes doesn't normally allow pets, but that rule goes away in case of a hurricane.
"Every past storm that we've had, especially Wilma and Katrina, we fill up with a lot of people who are evacuated because we are so far west," said sales director Lisa Gory. "We try to accommodate the best we can because we have the rooms and we're so far from the water."
When a storm approaches that requires evacuation, hotels near the water scramble to relocate their guests, often to sister properties inland.
That means places like the Doral Golf Resort & Spa, a Marriott resort, get a lot of requests.
"Because we're in a non-evacuation zone, all the beach hotels are calling us," said Chris Bielski, director of sales and marketing. "We'll see our occupancy go up to 100 percent sold out -- and then it's nothing because the storm is going to pass."
Florida State University service management professor Mark Bonn said the best move for hotels throughout the state is to get their guests to a centrally located place a safe distance away, like Orlando, well in advance of landfall.
"The residents will wait until the last minute and flood the streets," Bonn said. "That's why you want the hotel guests out of there in advance."
The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau also encourages tourists to get out of harm's way if a major storm is approaching. For those who must stay, and for residents who must evacuate, the bureau sends a survey to find out where rooms are available and whether they allow pets. That information becomes available in the county's 311 information hotline.
The Biltmore introduced its guarantee program in 2006, after back-to-back years of busy hurricane seasons, when customers asked if they could lock in the promise of a place to stay. Aside from the nonrefundable fee to participate, which ranges from $720 to $1,520 depending on the room, customers also pay room rates starting at $249 a night for a junior suite. That nightly rate tops out at $1,799 for the three-bedroom Merrick Suite.
Despite the absence of a major storm in South Florida since Wilma in 2005, 52 rooms have been reserved this year through the program, most by customers from evacuation zones like Key Biscayne, Miami Beach or Fisher Island. Another 69 spots remain. The hotel has a generator large enough to fully power the property if electricity goes off and allows guests to bring their dogs.
Hotel consultant Scott Brush, who has experienced firsthand how difficult it can be to find a place to stay during and after a storm, said he thinks programs like the Biltmore's are a fine idea.
"If you can afford it, it's a great way to get a little piece of mind," he said.
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