|By Douglas Hanks, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jan. 14, 2008 - Economic factors seem to be trumping the windchill factor when it comes to South Florida vacations.
Cold snaps up north normally mean sizzling business for hotels down south. But even with snow socking the Midwest this week and temperatures plunging below freezing in New York, some South Florida hotels say weather woes aren't boosting bookings like they used to.
"Typically the colder it gets, the bigger bump we'd see," said James Angel, sales director for the Mayfair Hotel & Spa in Coconut Grove. "We're just not seeing it now."
With the Northeast forecast to be snowed under by midweek, South Florida hotels still might get the wintry relief they've enjoyed during sunnier economic times. If not, it will add more clouds to a vacation season that already has hotels slashing rates and tourism officials boosting advertising.
October marked the first time since August 2002 that both Broward and Miami-Dade counties saw consecutive months of declining hotel taxes -- dollars that fund tourism campaigns as well as debt on public venues like the Adrienne Arsht concert hall in Miami and the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise.
The trend raises the stakes even more for South Florida's winter vacation season. In the first five months of 2007, the three South Florida counties collected about 60 percent of the year's $110 million hotel-tax tally.
For the first time this decade, the Greater Miami tourism bureau plans to trumpet Miami's sunny winters to northern markets. In years past, the tax-funded bureau would save its marketing dollars for the summer, figuring the winter weather was popular enough to sell itself.
Bureaus in the Keys and Broward have tapped reserve funds to boost winter advertising campaigns as hotel taxes drop at their fastest pace since the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
A frigid northern winter would certainly help business, but hoteliers aren't seeing weather playing its usual role this week.
"I don't see the old days, where you'd get a really big cold front up north and the next day you'd see this huge increase in bookings," said Wayne Gales, sales director for the Embassy Suites Deerfield Beach.
He blamed the decline on airlines cutting flights to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, boosting the cost of last-minute tickets to the destination.
"It was much easier to get impulsive travelers," he said.
Most hoteliers said Tuesday they're seeing January bookings come in below last year, but not worse than they predicted after the fall's financial meltdown rattled the travel market nationwide.
January typically serves as a prelude to the peak of tourist season in February and March, and hotels are cutting rates to fill rooms.
Even when freezing, travelers still are holding out for bargains.
At the South Beach Group, a collection of eight small hotels in South Beach, the northern freeze is producing a both a smaller and less profitable bump than last year's cold snaps.
"Last year if in New York or Chicago, they had a cold spell where it was just four or five days of nasty weather, we got a lot of last minute bookings and usually at very high rates," said Stephanie Balazs, the company's managing partner. One of her hotels, the Catalina, is advertising rooms for $99 this weekend -- $100 less than a year ago.
"People are starting to spend some money," she said. "But they're very very price-conscious."
Walter Banks, owner of one of Fort Lauderdale's priciest resorts, Lago Mar, said wealthy vacationers still are paying for winter escapes. He said reservation clerks at the oceanside hotel saw business pick up this week. "The last couple of days, it's been really strong," Banks said. "The people are specifically talking about how cold it is."
Chris Bielski, sales director at the Doral Golf Resort & Spa, also said he saw a "rash" of bookings this week, which he blamed on the Midwest winter mess.
Broward County's tourism bureau hopes the weather stays frigid when Barack Obama takes the presidential oath Tuesday. The agency is dispatching its "Beachmobile" to patrol Washington's streets during the inauguration festivities.
The vehicle, with mannequins clothed in bathing suits inside a plastic-enclosed beach, will drive to Washington from its current assignment in frigid Manhattan.
"Right now it's 25 and cloudy" in New York, said Broward tourism director Nicki Grossman. "The weather is perfect."
That should make South Florida seem balmy even during the cold front predicted to send beachside temperatures into the 50s this week. But even if the short-term forecast for South Florida isn't appealing, hoteliers say cold weather usually prompts northerners to make long-term vacation plans.
Joe Harris, owner of the Kona Kai Resort in Key Largo, hasn't seen the usual reservations rush from the rest of the country's weather misery. He hopes winter blues will eventually beat out recession worries. 'Maybe people will finally say in a week or two: 'I've had it. I need some warm weather,' " he said. "That's what I'm counting on."
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