|By Douglas Hanks Iii, The Miami Herald
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Oct. 27, 2005 - Blessed with electricity but cursed with empty beds, hotels are courting residents left in the dark by Hurricane Wilma.
"We're going to be completely sold out through Monday or Tuesday," said Rafael Barrera, general manager of South Beach's Clinton Hotel, which is offering a $70-per-night rate for South Florida residents.
For $70, guests get a free breakfast and beach chairs, as well as a tour of hurricane-damaged areas along Biscayne Bay in the hotel's sight-seeing boat. "This morning, there were a lot of people" on the boat, Barrera said.
Blackout victims provided hoteliers one of the few hopes of filling rooms in the wake of Hurricane Wilma's assault on South Florida. Utility workers and clean-up crews also were taking beds at a brisk pace, with one tourism official saying FP&L and the Federal Emergency Management Agency sought 2,000 rooms across the region.
But those groups require long stays, while many hotels are seeking a short-term infusion of guests to fill beds before high-paying tourists and business customers return. On Wednesday, Florida's tourism agency postponed a gathering of tour operators scheduled to meet this week in Hollywood, and a nursing association scratched its Miami Beach conference as well.
Meanwhile, the hotel industry took more steps toward recovery.
The Florida Keys also announced it would reopen to tourists on Friday, much sooner than officials there expected earlier in the week. Fantasy Fest, the huge Key West tourism draw originally scheduled for this week, will be held Dec. 7 through 10.
Hollywood's Westin Diplomat, the largest hotel in Broward County, regained power Wednesday, as did the Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Airport Hotel, according to the Greater Fort Lauderdale tourism bureau.
On Miami's Brickell Avenue, two of the three hotels that lost windows in Wilma reported that they were open and accepting guests.
The JW Marriott, where the south wall was pocked with blown-out windows, began accepting new guests Tuesday, a Marriott spokesman said. A block away at the Four Seasons, executives said that while many windows lost the exterior panes of their double-layered glass in the storm, only six rooms had both panes shatter.
In fact, the Four Seasons, which occupies nine floors in the 70-story building, said all of its 221 rooms are sold out tonight. "There are people with plans, people with groups, bar mitzvahs, weddings," said General Manager Ignacio Gomez-Tobar.
Even so, hurricane damage forced the Four Seasons to close its pool deck and police cordoned off the street outside the hotel as glass continued to fall from nearby buildings. The Conrad Hilton, housed in the severely damaged Espirito Santo Plaza tower a block away, would remain closed through November, a spokeswoman said.
Ravaged buildings along Brickell Avenue emerged as some of the iconic images of Hurricane Wilma as the national media broadcast South Florida's storm woes, including the fact that most of the region remains without power. The publicity and electrical problems have left most hotels hurting for out-of-town guests and hungry for local customers.
The Fontainebleau Resort in Miami Beach plans to begin advertising its new condo-hotel suites as the perfect refuge for well-heeled storm victims. For $389 a night, guests have an in-house kitchenette with a refrigerator and a washer and dryer. Already, business has been brisk.
"We've been selling all day," said spokesman Thomas Bruny.
The Biltmore in Coral Gables, which had only generator power and cold showers as of Wednesday afternoon, was touting $16 day passes to its health club. And even far-off hotels are courting South Florida's storm victims. A chain of discount Orlando hotels were offering $49 rooms for South Florida residents. (Call 1-866-337-6736 for details.)
And the Hyatt in Key West slashed its $400 nightly rate to $155 for local residents. It plans to keep the discount until "demand picks up," said Victor Lopez, Hyatt's senior vice president of field operations.
He said local residents usually mean good business for South Florida's Hyatts after a storm. "A hot bowl of oatmeal in the morning means a lot to people," he said.
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