|By Douglas Hanks, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Nov. 26, 2008 - --This will be the first winter in years when Miami's balmy weather doesn't sell itself.
The Greater Miami tourism bureau plans a rare advertising campaign during the height of South Florida's vacation season, a four-month stretch usually so popular it goes without any extra promotion. Faced with declining hotel bookings, bureau executives plan $1 million worth of advertising in early 2009.
The strategy -- Greater Miami's first winter advertising campaign since the 2001 terrorist attacks -- reflects the damage control under way throughout the industry. Tourism bureaus in Broward and the Keys announced similar emergency campaigns in recent months, while hotels cut budgets and slash rates to combat sharp declines in consumer spending.
"Christmas is booking, but nothing compared to years past," said Chris Majchrowicz, general manager of Key West's Fairfield Inn. "The folks we see limiting [bookings] the most are the families. They just aren't letting go of the disposable dollars."
To boost bookings, Fort Lauderdale's Harbor Beach Marriott this year offered some guests a third night free. The promotion, usually reserved for the slow summer and fall seasons, may get extended into peak booking periods.
"We're not sure if we're going to pick it up for the season yet," said sales director Jay Marsella. "Next year is going to be our toughest year from the standpoint of demand and economics."
The latest industry figures show an accelerated decline in bookings, but not the collapse seen in other segments of the consumer-driven economy. Broward hotels saw revenue-per-room drop 11 percent in October amid declining occupancy and room rates, its worst showing this year, according to Smith Travel Research. Keys hotels saw similar declines, while room revenue dropped just 3 percent in Miami-Dade.
"They aren't as nice as I'd like to see them," said hospitality analyst Scott Brush of the Miami-Dade figures. "Then again, they aren't as bad as some places in the country."
Of the top 20 major hotel markets tracked by Smith Travel, only four have posted stronger room-revenue growth this year than Miami-Dade's 2.1 percent gain over 2007. That progress came largely thanks to a surge in foreign travelers in the spring and summer, as a weak U.S. dollar put the destination on sale for Europeans.
But with Europe facing its own financial crisis and the dollar strengthening, foreigners may not rescue South Florida tourism next year.
A recent Greater Miami tourism bureau survey found 65 percent of hotels planned to cut rates next year to make up for booking shortfalls. The major culprit: a drop-off in corporate meetings, largely thanks to major cutbacks in the financial sector.
To combat rate declines -- which could cut into the $73 million in hotel taxes Miami-Dade collected this year -- the tax-funded bureau will shift summer ad dollars into the winter. The campaign, a mix of print and online ads that may include television spots, begins in January.
"We will not go dark," said Rolando Aedo, the bureau's marketing director.
The new winter dollars could leave the bureau short in the summer, the traditional launch of the bureau's marketing blitz on vacationers. But Aedo and the bureau's president, William Talbert, said they may propose tapping an emergency marketing fund that has sat idle since the bureau used it to combat the post-9/11 tourism crisis.
"We were up and the rest were down," Talbert said of Miami-Dade posting better numbers than other destinations during this year's deteriorating economy. "Eventually it catches up to us, and we're seeing it."
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