|By Tom Stieghorst, South Florida Sun-Sentinel|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Nov. 23, 2004 - After a nearly three-month gap, guests once again are checking into the Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach hotel in Manalapan, which closed on Sept. 2 as Hurricane Frances approached and decided to remain closed after damage from that storm and Hurricane Jeanne.
The 270-room Ritz reopened Monday with most rooms occupied for the four-day Thanksgiving Day weekend.
With a few exceptions, nearly all of the Palm Beach County hotels that closed after Jeanne have reopened. The Jupiter Beach Resort is not scheduled to reopen until January and the Crowne Plaza West Palm Beach won't reopen until the second quarter of 2005, according to its corporate parent, Lodgian Corp.
Both hotels were substantially damaged by the two hurricanes, which made landfall Sept. 5 and 25 near Stuart.
Although hurricane season officially runs for another eight days, the weather at this time of year has begun to turn from foe to friend for most hotels in South Florida. Snowbirds of all stripes begin returning to the area.
"We have guests who have been with us for years at Thanksgiving," Ritz Carlton spokeswoman Crissy Poorman said.
That made it important for the hotel to complete its repairs and renovations by this week. The Ritz has taken advantage of the lull to install new beds in most guest rooms. The culinary staff has been testing new holiday recipes.
A tower incorporated into one wing sustained wind and rain damage to its stucco cladding, which had to be removed, Poorman said. Work continues on reapplying the stucco even as the hotel is reopened, she said.
After Hurricane Frances struck in early September, the hotel was without power for five days. It was preparing to reopen when Hurricane Jeanne took the same path as Frances, forcing the hotel to remain shuttered.
It was the first time that the hotel, built in 1991 and owned by Acorn Asset Management, has closed, Poorman said.
Both the Ritz and The Breakers resort in Palm Beach cited the need to bring their grounds and operations up to 5-star standards before reopening. The Breakers reopened after Hurricane Jeanne on Oct. 7.
September and October are trough months for tourism to South Florida. Average daily rates for rooms in Palm Beach County bottom out at about $91 a night in September before starting their climb towards the peak of about $170 a night in February.
This year, occupancy in September was 61.5 percent, a jump from the 51.9 percent level of September 2003. The increase came from residents displaced by the hurricanes and emergency workers required for clean-up.
But the September occupancy was still well below the 80 percent rate that prevails in the first quarter, when cold weather drives tourists to Florida.
About 450 employees of the Ritz Carlton rallied Sunday in the semi-circular drive leading up to the resort's front door. Many of them had been dispatched to other Ritz properties, mostly in Florida but some in the Caribbean and as far away as California.
In some cases, employees who were not sent to other Ritz hotels assisted with improvements while the hotel was closed, Poorman said. All employees were paid during the hiatus, she said.
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