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Wilma Won't Spoil South Florida's Pivotal
 Winter Tourism Season, Some Say...

By Tom Stieghorst, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Nov. 6, 2005 - How will Hurricane Wilma affect South Florida's pivotal winter tourism season? One clue comes from Wendy Leung.

A bank worker in Jersey City, N. J., Leung said last week that her impression of South Florida as a vacation spot was bleak. "It's terrible down there, isn't it, with all the hurricane damage? Everything is all destroyed. There's nothing to do," she said.

But another perspective on Wilma comes from Hollywood hotelier Bryan P. DeCort. "I'm going to be sold out for the next month and maybe through December," said DeCort, who manages the 229-room Marriott Hollywood Beach.

DeCort said two-thirds of the hotel's rooms are booked for the next 90 days by State Farm insurance adjusters. That should provide a great start to the winter, DeCort said, adding, "January and February were very stout anyway."

For the bulk of the hospitality industry in South Florida, Hurricane Wilma is a curve ball that will muddy the start of the high season. Already it shortened the Fort Lauderdale boat show, an annual windfall, and stirred doubts for some Northern tourists.

Within the industry, most say Wilma isn't enough to stop people from coming out of the cold between January and April. But bigger hotels with good insurance, financing and national reservations systems are in a far better position to bounce back than the smaller and older properties still ubiquitous in Broward County.

"Some of the mom and pop [hotels] around here really got hammered," DeCort said.

Winter is vital for South Florida hotels for two reasons. Room occupancies soar into the 90 percent range, compared with about 65 percent in the summer. And rates go up an average of about 40 percent after Thanksgiving.

The combination means that hotels can lose money or break even in the summer and still prosper if winter is good. And tourists put dollars in circulation throughout the South Florida economy, in bars, restaurants, stores and attractions.

But of the 30,000 rooms in Broward County and 16,000 in Palm Beach County, more than 5,000 are out of inventory today. At least a dozen big hotels are closed for 10 days to two weeks after the storm, the Fort Lauderdale visitors bureau said.

Among them are the 358-room Embassy Suites hotel on 17th Street and the 230-room Oceanfront Resort on Fort Lauderdale beach.

Others are partly closed. The Sheraton Yankee Clipper hotel has 500 rooms in four buildings. Three of the buildings are open, but the one closest to the beach, with about 125 rooms, will take several months to repair.

In Palm Beach County, The Breakers and the Boca Raton Resort & Club have rebounded faster than after hurricanes Frances and Jeanne last year. Both are open, although the Boca Resort's Beach Club, with 212 rooms, is closed until Nov. 9.

Beyond hotels, Wilma shuttered dozens of restaurants, shops and tourists concessions. The bicycle rental on Hollywood's popular Broadwalk is closed because city crews are still bulldozing sand off the pavement.

Butterfly World is open but Flamingo Gardens is closed. Lion Country Safari has discounted admission to $10 per person through Nov. 11 as it cleans acres of debris and hundreds of fallen trees from the drive-through animal park.

The paradox after Wilma is that despite the mayhem, hotel rooms are very hard to find. In the short term, supply has been reduced and demand, both from residents who have relocated and from emergency work crews, is soaring.

That could persist for weeks, long enough for the shuttered hotels to get back on their feet. "For us, we should be back in full operations in time for the winter season," said David Wahba, director of sales and marketing for the Yankee Trader and Clipper hotels.

Wahba said that November and December are still transition months when judged against the "peak" season of January through April. Broward hotels last year were 71 percent full in November and 70 percent in December.

Hotel owners who expect a robust peak season point to their results from September, which in many cases were stronger than in 2004 despite fears that after Frances and Jeanne, travelers would avoid South Florida that month.

"Last year, I thought our property values would go down," said Donna Barnett, assistant manager of the 25-room Hollywood Sands Resort, "but they kept going up."

The visitors bureaus in both Broward and Palm Beach counties have marketing campaigns geared to attracting tourists from the Northeast and Midwest during the winter. Nicki Grossman, president of the Fort Lauderdale bureau, was in New York pitching those plans even as Wilma was sweeping across South Florida.

"We're all going to have to work harder to get the groups down here," said Warren "Mac" McLaughlin, president of the visitors bureau in West Palm Beach.

While most hotels expect to be open for the peak season, Wilma's winds will delay the long-awaited transition of some properties.

The St. Regis Resort & Residences, an ultra-luxury hotel being built on the site of the old Candy Store lounge on Fort Lauderdale beach, lost about two weeks of construction because of the storm, and won't open until spring, general manager Steve Shalit said.

In West Palm Beach, the Crowne Plaza hotel -- closed since Hurricane Frances last year -- had hoped to reopen this month. It now expects to open in the first quarter of 2006, said a statement, which cited "potential scheduling problems for required inspections due to the disruption in the area from Hurricane Wilma."

But the Holiday Inn Hollywood Beach, which was scheduled to close next summer for a major condo-hotel conversion, may now move up the start of that project. The front door bears a "Closed Until Further Notice" sign. Attempts to reach the owners were unsuccessful.

Ultimately, the success of Florida will depend on the perception of tourists. With the state hit for the second year running by hurricanes, Florida could slip a rung or two in the vacation pecking order, hotel official say.

"There is some erosion," concedes Paul Leone, president of The Breakers, which reopened a week after Wilma's arrival.

Still, Leone said there aren't that many affordable alternatives in the winter that don't also share Florida's location in Hurricane Alley. The area's package of beaches, reliable warm weather, easy transportation and cosmopolitan atmosphere is hard to find.

Leone said Florida and The Breakers have established brands that can weather all but the most severe storms.

"People want to come to Florida," he said. "I don't think that's going to change in any big way."

Staff Writer Anthony Man contributed to this report.


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