Labor Day weekend travel is expected to hit highs not seen since since the recession cut into vacation budgets, fueled in part by low gas prices.
Relief at the pump is welcome news for South Florida destinations, which depend on drive-market travelers during the summer months.
“We always project for the summer season and always have a little prayer at the end of it that says, ‘As long as gas prices don’t skyrocket,’” said Nicki Grossman, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. “This is not only not skyrocketing, not only maintaining but actually dropping to the point that people can perceive some savings if they’re going to be driving for end-of-summer vacation.”
Labor Day gas prices are expected to be the cheapest for the holiday weekend since 2010, according to a AAA prediction. The organization’s daily fuel gauge report said the average price for regular unleaded in Miami was $3.43 on Thursday, compared to $3.62 a year ago.
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Mark Jenkins, a AAA spokesman, said the group’s Labor Day travel forecast reflects that drop. Nationwide, nearly 35 million Americans are expected to travel 50 or more miles from home between Thursday and Monday, a 1.3 percent increase over last year and the highest number since 2008. In Florida, the number of projected travelers is 1.7 million, an increase of 2.4 percent.
Jenkins said cheaper gas “certainly influences people who are still deciding whether to take a trip.”
Those gas savings could come in handy in Miami-Dade, where visitors and locals alike have their last chance to take advantage of overlapping deals: Miami Spa Month, which ends Monday, and Miami Spice, a two-month restaurant promotion that stretches until the end of September.
“Just a few more days for the double whammy of Spa and Spice,” said Rolando Aedo, chief marketing officer for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Come September, though, Lauderdale Spa Chic kicks off with nearly 20 resort and day spas offering their own bargains. That will be followed in Broward by Dine Out Lauderdale from Oct. 1-Nov. 6.
Originally created to drum up business in slower months, promotions such as Miami Spa and Miami Spice have become key selling points.
“These are tremendous messaging hooks that we use as we’re working with travel agents and tour operators giving them yet another great reason to come to Miami in the summer, in addition to the factor that hotel rooms are priced more aggressively,” Aedo said. “It makes for quite a compelling package.”
Javier Beneyto, general manager of the Metropolitan by COMO in Miami Beach, said the COMO Shambhala spa and restaurant, Traymore, have both been getting a bump from the promotions after opening earlier this year. While the hotel and restaurant are both ranked No. 1 on TripAdvisor, Beneyto said the lure of a three-course lunch for $23 and dinner for $39 has driven many locals.
“Now that people are seeing they can have the Miami Spice menu for a restaurant that’s already popular, certainly the people are jumping in,” he said.
At the Eden Roc in Miami Beach, the $99 deals at the ELLE Spa have been so popular that the hotel is extending some of the existing packages through September — and adding some new ones. The deals have been attractive to tourists and locals alike, said the hotel’s general manager, Shawn Gracey.
A summer sales campaign offering a fourth night free helped the season stay busy, Gracey said. The 631-room is at capacity through Monday.
Aedo said he expects hotel occupancy to be at about 78 percent for the holiday weekend in Miami-Dade, an increase of about 3 percentage points compared to last year. That follows a summer that kept pace or showed increases over last year in occupancy, with jumps every month in average room rates compared to the previous year. For July, the last full month with data available from research firm STR, average rates in Miami-Dade were up 5 percent to about $149.
Broward has shown gains in occupancy and rates as well this summer, with average July rates increasing more than 5 percent to $103.60. For the holiday weekend, Grossman said many hotels are sold out with crowds driving from places as near as Weston and as far as Atlanta and Nashville. New air service from Norwegian Air Shuttle and Copa Airlines is also delivering international traffic.
Still, the holiday will lead to what is typically a slow month in South Florida. Grossman said the one bright spot will be the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at the end of the month, when families travel for the Jewish holidays.
“September is a tough, tough time,” Grossman said, calling it “super value” season at hotels. “If locals want to get away and have a hotel for the weekend, you can’t beat September.”
Gina Guilford, a writer who lives near South Miami, is getting away to the Florida Keys for Labor Day weekend and staying at her sister’s condo with some friends.
While the trip has been planned for a while, Guilford said in an email that “the gas going down in price is certainly a bonus.”
Midweek, her biggest concern was that no outside forces interfere with plans for swimming, water skiing, cooking, movie-watching and relaxing.
“Hopefully, no tropical disturbances will disturb our right to have fun,” she wrote.