On a bitterly cold day earlier this year, bundled up New Yorkers were greeted by a group of men and women in beach attire - complete with flip flops, sunglasses and bathing suits - in an effort to show them what South Florida’s winter looks like.
The unusual sight near New York’s Grand Central Station was part of the “Hello Sunny” advertising campaign put on by the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.
And it seems to be working.
As freezing temperatures, snowfall, and ice continue to chill the nation, South Florida’s tourism industry is fired up over all-time high numbers.
“We really almost have lost count,” said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau of the record year. “A lot of it has to do with how miserable the weather is.”
According to Grossman, Fort Lauderdale’s tourism industry is enjoying its 50th consecutive month of growth with all-time highs across the board. She anticipates the numbers for February to be higher than ever for that month - including when Miami was hosting the Super Bowl in 2010.
Most domestic visitors are from the New York area, followed by Chicago.
"It's almost a highway between New York and Fort Lauderdale,” Grossman said. “That's the corridor that brings us the most business."
Travel agent Olga Ramudo from Express Travel agrees.
“I’m looking at flights from New York for tomorrow, the cheapest flights are sold out,” Ramudo said. “The closer the cities, the easier it is for people to come down here.”
Almost 30 percent of visitors are from the Northeast United States, Grossman said.
But not only sun-hungry Americans are seeking out South Florida.
“Our Canadian numbers are almost up 12 percent over last year,” Grossman said. Since Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport added a Norwegian airline in November, the area has seen nearly 300 Scandinavian visitors per week.
With flights filled to the brim, hotels are not far behind.
The occupancy rate for January was 83.5 percent - an increase of almost 4.5 percent from the previous year, Grossman said. “For February we’re hearing they’re having an occupancy rate of over 90 percent,” Grossman said.
Fort Lauderdale is certainly not alone in enjoying an influx in visitors from the North.
Said Andy Newman, a spokesman for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council: “We’re really filled up down here. I have to imagine that some of it is due to the weather.”
Average daily rates in Key West hotels were up an average of 21 percent in February, Newman said.
Newman, who has lived in South Florida all his life, experienced the freezing cold weather first-hand when he flew to New York recently. He said the trip renewed his appreciation for the Keys. “I stepped off the plane, it was just so darn cold," Newman said. After getting to the hotel he changed all his appointments so he could fly back down on earlier. "I was freezing my fanny off up there."
You can have the best ads in the world, Newman said, but “nothing beats the cold chill to motivate people to come down to Florida.”
Despite the ringing endorsement from Jack Frost, Florida’s tourism industry is targeting frostbitten cities across the Northeast to lure travelers.
“We’ve done extensive marketing in cold-weather cities,” Grossman said. New York, Chicago and Boston have seen creative advertising strategies including heated bus shelters, complimentary sunglasses and even free flights courtesy of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.
In Philadelphia, Visit Florida, the state’s official marketing organization, put mannequins dressed in beach attire atop taxis with their arms outstretched as part of its winter campaign “Flocking to Florida”, said Paul Phipps, the organization’s chief marketing officer.
“People are just trying to get away from the cold,” Phipps said. “Across the board you see people down here.”
Eduardo Chapoval, general manager of the Hampton Inn & Suites Miami Brickell Downtown, said his hotel’s pool is crowded even though it’s not heated. And while the water may be too cold for Floridians, many of his Northern guests don’t seem to mind.
“The colder it gets, the better for us,” Ramudo said.