Ok, all of you who are old enough to remember when Fort Lauderdale was the haven for Spring Breakers, search the far corners of your brains. "There were two icons. At the south end of the strip, you had The Elbow Room, and at the North End, the Candy Store. That’s where Wet T-shirt contests were born," says Nicki E. Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, referring to Fort Lauderdale’s Spring Break heyday in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. "On that site, where the Candy Store stood, a property will open in 2005, Florida’s first St. Regis hotel—not in Palm Beach, not in Miami, but in Fort Lauderdale!"

The glee is evident as Grossman puts the city’s incredible turnaround in perspective. Does anyone in Fort Lauderdale miss those days? "Spring Break peaked around 1985, when we had about 380,000 students over a nine-week period, spending $110 million," says Grossman, who has been at the bureau’s helm for nine years. "During the same period last year, 530,000 came for conventions and meetings, and spent $600 million." Truth be told, most college students can’t afford Fort Lauderdale these days: "Now we get around 15,000 college students, mostly from Canada and the Northeast," she says.

In addition to the St. Regis, this spring the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood will open in nearby Hollywood, as will the Best Western Pelican Beach Resort and The Atlantic, a member of Starwood's prestigious Luxury Collection portfolio. In 2006, the state’s first ever W hotel, the W Fort Lauderdale Hotel and Residences, will open.

Click here for more. "Our calendar year 2003 closed with the highest occupancy ever, 70 percent annualized. And our average daily rate for whole year averaged just under $83. Our bed tax receipts were 11 percent higher in ’03 than in ’02. Business just snapped back. We booked some 400,000 room nights in amateur and college sports, and we have a tremendous new cruise business (Port Everglades is the berth of the Queen Mary)." But she counts the association meeting business as a huge contributor to the hospitality community’s success. Grossman says that Fort Lauderdale started a "Hometown Heros" initiative that’s about "backyard marketing. We reached out to CEOs in our community who are members of national associations," and that has proven quite fruitful. To connect the popular Fort Lauderdale Convention Center with the many meeting hotels, a free campus shuttle will be available in May as an option to bus transportation for groups. And it will use clean-air technology, adds Grossman. Fort Lauderdale is helped greatly by an airport that is served by four of the country’s leading low-cost carriers. The Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport also reported a banner year last year, welcoming more than 17.4 million passengers in FY2003, a 6.2 percent increase over 2002. Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International has been the fastest growing airport in the country for the past seven years. "We’re South Beach without the velvet ropes," jokes Grossman.