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South Florida Tourism Expected to Experience Gradual Recovery in 2011

By Doreen Hemlock, Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Dec. 28, 2010--Tourism in South Florida is expected to rebound at a faster pace in 2011 after slim gains this year, industry experts predict. But don't expect pre-recession business for years.

For consumers, the slow growth means more discounts and deals at area hotels, restaurants and attractions. For businesses, the mild recovery means continued caution in hiring, ads and spending.

The chic W Fort Lauderdale resort shows the trend. Business in 2011 should inch forward, with rooms 65 percent full at $210 a night, up from 60 percent full at $208 a night this year, said general manager Scott Brooks.

"It will be a gradual incline," said Brooks. For 2011, hoteliers worry about lower rates that U.S. government employees can pay, limited corporate travel and uncertainty over U.S. economic prospects. "The big question is: When will rates really come back, and how strong,?" Brooks asked.

Tourism should get a boost from several factors. Port Everglades will host more and bigger cruise ships, including the newly arrived Allure of the Seas. Flights are being added at Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach airports. International tourism is growing, thanks to the weak dollar and surging economies of Latin America. Plus, corporate travel is picking up after its 2009 nosedive, experts said.

"It's not the go-go days of 2004, 2005 and 2006, but every indication is the corporate market is going to lead the way into recovery. And that's very good news for Palm Beach County," said Jorge Pesquera, president of the county's Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Yet constraints remain. There's no Super Bowl in South Florida next year to generate publicity and lure travelers, said Walter Banks, who owns luxury, 204-room Lago Mar Resort and Club in Fort Lauderdale. Plus, Florida's early season cold snap could discourage those who want to escape frigid weather up north, executives said.

Add to that the nation's stubbornly weak economy, with nearly 10 percent unemployment and real estate slump.

Real estate woes are one reason Riverfront Cruise of downtown Fort Lauderdale saw its business shrink by roughly half in 2010. With many shops shuttered at the adjacent Riverfront mall, there were fewer people nearby who might opt for a cruise, said general manager Eileen White.

"We're struggling to retain the (10) employees we have," said White.

To adapt, travel executives are getting creative -- offering extra perks and refining their marketing.

Riverfront Cruise recently added an open bar for guests and is reaching out to hotel concierges to tout their cruise. The W Fort Lauderdale plans to more aggressively trim rates on slow days and charge more on busier ones to boost income on its 517 rooms.

Weston's Sawgrass Recreation Park, which offers airboat rides and animal exhibits, is turning to new deals websites such as Living Social and Groupon to stoke already rising sales, executives said.

Restaurants also are "working much harder for the dollar," said Tim Petrillo, chief executive of The Restaurant People, which owns the upscale Yolo and Vibe restaurants in Fort Lauderdale and mid-range seafood houses Tarpon Bend in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. He estimates his sales rose about 2 percent in 2010 and should gain 3 percent to 5 percent this year, as the economy slowly improves.

"We're getting the headcount coming through the door. We're just not getting the check average we used to," Petrillo said. "We're not selling bottles of wine, appetizers and desserts. You're getting people maybe splitting entrees -- so the average check instead of $85 is $45 to $50 now."

Travel analysts say it will take years for South Florida tourism to recoup the pricing strength it had before the recession. Hotel specialists PKF Consulting figures Broward County hotels won't regain their previous sales-per-room peaks until 2013; Palm Beach County, likely 2015, said senior vice president Scott Smith.

""We still have a lot of ground to make up," Smith said. "The drop was huge."

Doreen Hemlock can be reached at or 305-910-5009.


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Copyright (c) 2010, Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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