We feel blessed that we didn't sustain any more damage than we did,” said W. Paul Catoe, president/CEO of the Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau, who was a meteorologist at WFLA-TV, Tampa Bay's NBC affiliate, and its general manager before moving to the hospitality business. “We also realize that this is completely an anomaly. Last time this happened was over 100 years ago, and it's probably not going to happen [again] for another hundred.”
Catoe spoke during a late October roundtable discussion with other Florida hospitality executives who had survived three hurricanes in six weeks (the fourth hitting the Florida Panhandle). While the session might be characterized as therapeutic, the main message these executives wanted to convey was this: We are open for business, and damage is minimal.
The executives gathered in Orlando for a roundtable hosted by RCM and its sister magazines and YPB&R, an international marketing, advertising, and public relations agency based in Orlando, to assess the implications of the hurricanes for meeting planners.
Many of the executives worried that the perception left in consumers' minds were of the images televised during the hurricanes. Stations choose the worst possible spot from which to broadcast during a hurricane, which leaves the perception that wide areas were affected, when the pockets of destruction were actually quite small, said Mark Nelson, vice president of convention sales and services, Orlando Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc.
“The Weather Channel has the ability to do a little bit of sensationalizing,” said Nelson, who added that the extent of damage to the Orlando area was mainly to the residential areas on the east side of the city, not to the areas where the majority of meeting properties are located.
Mark Crabb, deputy director, Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau, which represents one of the areas hardest hit (also Pensacola, parts of Daytona Beach, and Stuart on the east coast), said properties that had closed were taking advantage of the slow season and insurance money to remodel and would reopen by December 15.
Sanibel Harbor Resort & Spa's Barry Brown, director of sales and marketing, said the resort, which had done a room renovation a year ago, was closed so that they could hit “the replay button on the renovations” and would reopen February 1. He said planners were more anxious about guaranteeing that re-opening date for their winter meetings than about booking a meeting during the next hurricane season. Brown and his staff acted as meeting consultants when the resort closed, even going on site inspections with clients to other resorts in the area to help them find new meeting sites.
Perry Goodbar, PGA National Resort & Spa, Palm Beach Gardens, said he had been receiving calls from planners with programs booked for this coming winter and spring, asking “is the golf experience going to be the same?” Goodbar says he sent several planners airline tickets so that they could see for themselves that it is.
Melinda Rhodes, regional director of marketing communications, Marriott International, Marriott Southeast Regional Office, said that during the storms, “We had the ability to move some of our group business to other Marriotts.” She, too, is inviting planners down on fam trips as proof that damage is very limited.
In fact, several hoteliers enjoyed higher-than-average occupancies in August and September because of hurricane-related business, from residents who moved to hotels to be safe to housing FEMA executives, insurance adjusters, and contractors.
Eric Opron, director of sales and marketing, Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin, Orlando, said “our booking pace for September '05 is ahead, and we were in that position going into this September. No one has come back to us and asked to renegotiate those.”
Catherine “Kit” McClelland, director of sales and marketing, Caribe Royale, Orlando, said she was experiencing a similar booking pace, and that only one of the groups that did have to reschedule from this September opted to come back next November rather than September. She said, all in all, “we are dealing with queries about the hurricane on a one-on-one basis.”
These executives agreed that bringing planners for personal site inspections made the most sense, so they could assess for themselves the extent of the damage, which in affected areas meant downed trees.
The hospitality executives are not coming out with special offers or deals. They acknowledged that other parts of the country, in particular the Southwest, were making an effort to scoop business that might have otherwise gone to Florida during the August-September period. “There can be a negative reaction to people who dance on graves,” said Carole Ketterhagen, executive director, St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It will come back to haunt you.”