|By Christie Phillips, Florida Keys Keynoter, Marathon|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Sep. 29, 2004 - Hotel occupancy rates in Key West and throughout Monroe County were at a 10-year low for the month of August -- and things are looking worse for September.
"The August numbers are down, but September is going to be way off," said Peter Ilchuk, president of the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West.
"I think August was the beginning of a slow time," said M.J. Neel, president of the Marathon Chamber of Commerce. "The kids went back to school earlier than in years past and that definitely had an impact. And then [Hurricane] Charley came along and everyone was looking for a big Labor Day weekend and we didn't get it.
"But September numbers are going to be much worse."
There are a total of 15,249 rooms on 368 properties from Key Largo to Key West, according to the county Tourist Development Council.
Countywide occupancy for August was down 11.5 percent, to 62.6 percent occupancy. For Key West, the numbers were down 13 percent for a 66.1 percent occupancy rate. Both of those figures are the lowest they have been in 10 years, tourism officials say.
Most blame the drop on Hurricane Charley, the first in a series of storms that have battered Florida's tourist economy. Charley hit Florida Aug. 13.
"There was Charley, followed by the uncertainty of the approaching Frances," Ilchuk said.
"As soon as they start broadcasting that there's a storm out there, we start getting cancellations because people don't want to risk running into problems on their vacation," said Julie Fondriest, owner and manager of the Key Lime Inn, Merlin Guesthouse and Budget Key West. "But August wasn't nearly as much a problem as September. We were actually working on a very good August, then Charley came along."
"I think we got spoiled because we had such a good run up until this point," said Steve Robbins, general manager of the Doubletree Grand Key Resort. "But I think overall, our fourth quarter is going to be very good. I think people see this as an isolated weather problem. And the media's going to move onto something else soon, so I think it will fairly be forgotten."
Robbins doesn't blame just the weather for low August occupancy rates.
"The weather played a part in it," Robbins said. "But I think overall, we're seeing a trend in schools going back earlier, so families aren't vacationing in August. With that, June is showing improvements since school gets out earlier, but then August is suffering on the back side."
Occupancy numbers for September aren't compiled yet, though hoteliers aren't expecting much.
"We never really came back after Charley," Fondriest said of tourist businesses in Key West. "Once you lose your momentum, it's hard to get that back, and then the storms just kept coming. This is definitely shaping up to be the worst September I've seen in the Keys. We just weren't open this year."
"September is historically by far the worst month for tourism," Robbins said. "Bad in the past has been just above 50 percent occupancy. I think we'll certainly see below 50 percent this year."
Occupancy dipped to 48.5 percent in 2001 after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
Many think the worst is over.
"In my opinion, based on my hotel, we're very optimistic about October," Robbins said. "As far as advance bookings, we're in very good shape. And I think we are going to benefit from the Bahamas, the Caymans -- people want to get away to a sunny destination. And it's fairly easy to recognize we're untouched."
"We're looking at how to position ourselves as one of the few areas of Florida that has been unscathed in light of the loss of rooms in many parts of Florida and the Caribbean," Ilchuk said. "There appears to be an opportunity to capture that traveler planning to come down."
"With my properties and others hotel people I've been talking to, Fantasy Fest onward is looking very strong," Fondriest said. "We hope to have a real strong bounce back. But you can never make up what's lost -- that's gone."
"I'm keeping my fingers crossed," Neel said. "I think recovery is on its way. I think the word is getting out that the Keys are a good place to come now."
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