|By Doreen Hemlock, South Florida
Sun-SentinelMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Sep. 26, 2007 -- South Florida hotels posted gains in August, as more Floridians stayed close to home and hurricanes stayed away.
But business through August this year remains largely flat compared with 2006, according to industry executives and Smith Travel Research.
The Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa, with its 998 rooms in Hollywood, exemplified the gains last month. Both occupancy rates and average room rates rose compared to August last year, said spokeswoman Michelle Schulman.
Guests were no longer as "weather-shy" as they'd been last summer after the busy 2005 hurricane season. And with gas prices high and the housing market soft, more U.S. families checked in. Enrollment at the "Westin Kids Club" program doubled from last August, she said.
For Broward County overall, Smith Travel estimated August occupancy at 64 percent, a 6 percent gain from last August. And room rates averaged $98.47, up 9.1 percent.
While the uptick is welcome, Smith's data doesn't fully reflect the county's roughly 32,000-room hotel market, said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau. Compared to other markets, Broward has a higher share of small hotels, which don't take part in Smith's surveys. Plus, Broward has a relatively high number of rooms being remodeled. So its occupancy appears lower than it is, she said.
"The good news is that higher average daily room rates didn't scare off visitors," said Grossman, predicting gains for the fall as well.
Helping buoy August results were stronger currencies in Europe and Canada, which make U.S. vacations cheaper for travelers from those areas. Visitors from Western Europe and Canada don't need visas to visit the United States.
European travel to Greater Fort Lauderdale rose about 3 percent and Canadian travel about 5 percent from last summer, Grossman estimated.
Palm Beach County, with roughly 16,000 hotel rooms, also improved in August, though less so than Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
Through August, Palm Beach County hotels had the weakest performance in the tri-county area: Average occupancy fell 4.6 percent and room rates rose just 2 percent compared to the year-ago period, Smith Travel reported.
Miami-Dade County, with its roughly 45,000 hotel rooms, is performing best so far in South Florida. The county posted a record summer, thanks partly to marketing that focuses on the traditionally slow summer and strives to develop year-round tourism, said Bill Talbert, president of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Still, Miami-Dade faces a serious challenge, as the U.S. destination most dependent on foreign visitors. Like the United States overall, the county has yet to recover the number of overseas visitors it had before Sept. 11, 2001.
Visitors requiring U.S. visas continue to face delays for visa interviews at U.S. consulates abroad. Plus, surveys show international travelers rate U.S. border entry among the world's least welcoming.
Talbert joined U.S. travel industry leaders in Washington, D.C., for meetings Tuesday aimed to address those international travel woes, partly by adding border staff and boosting their training.
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