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Labor Day travel expected to reach 5-year high

With Labor Day travel expected to jump nationwide, hoteliers in South Florida are hoping the holiday will provide a strong start to a typically slow month — and some are making extra sure of it with pool parties, concerts, and special deals.

According to a AAA forecast, 34.1 million Americans are expected to travel at least 50 miles from home, a 4.2 percent increase from last year. That’s the highest number since 2008, when 45 million people ventured out for the holiday.

Jessica Brady, spokeswoman for AAA, The Auto Club Group, said lower gas prices and more favorable economic conditions are likely contributing to the anticipated increase.

“People are feeling more financially comfortable at this point in time to enjoy the holiday,” she said. “We saw a very slow start and really a slow summer because Memorial Day and Independence Day travel was relatively the same as last year.”

In South Florida, the summer has seen solid growth in room rates, if not spectacular hotel occupancy gains. September typically brings the lowest numbers for hotel occupancy and among the lowest for rates.

In Miami-Dade, surveys conducted by the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau show hotels expect to be 72-73 percent full, just about on par with last year’s weekend average of 73 percent. Chief marketing officer Rolando Aedo said that while July was flat occupancy-wise, rates shot up and both metrics increased in the first three weeks of August.

“Leading into September, we’re anticipating a very, very strong third quarter,” he said.

At the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, a music series called BleauLive that got its start two years ago is leading to a sold-out weekend. The concert this Sunday features Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke of Blurred Lines fame.

“We put it on weekends that we wanted to create an incredible amount of demand,” said Scott Flexman, vice president of sales and marketing for the resort.

Guests must book a package — starting at $369 a night this weekend — in order to take part in the concert and other events. Sales have picked up in the last week, Flexman said, and the 1,500-room hotel expects to be booked solid.

Several South Beach hotels are hosting pool parties throughout the weekend, including the SLS, which expects to sell out and draw locals who just want to hang out for the day at the Hyde Beach pool and lounge area.

“This year is just unbelievable, the response we’ve gotten from local outreach,” said Thomas Meding, Miami-area managing director for operator sbe.

Hotels in the Florida Keys also expect strong summer business to continue into the holiday weekend, with several reporting that they expect to sell out.

In an email, Broward tourism chief Nicki Grossman said she is confident that momentum will continue after a record-breaking summer so far. She said all indications point to a busy Labor Day weekend, followed a few days later by family visits from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year that starts the evening of Sept. 4 and lasts through the night of Sept. 6. The holiday typically falls later in the month or in October; students in both Miami-Dade and Broward have no school on Sept. 5.

“With our busiest ever June and July behind us, we now look forward to a best-ever September,” Grossman wrote.

At the Harbor Beach Marriott Resort and Spa in Fort Lauderdale, the combination of Labor Day and Rosh Hashanah in the same week is making for a busy time.

“Labor Day weekend typically is not a strong weekend for the market, but this year it’s very solid,” said sales and marketing director Jay Marsella.

He said the hotel, which has 650 rooms, will sell out two of three nights over the weekend — and then start checking in guests on Wednesday for a Rosh Hashanah package.

Rabbi Pinny Andrusier, of Chabad of Southwest Broward, runs the hotel’s holiday program, which includes guest rabbis, lecturers, cantors, catered meals — and a beachfront location.

“That’s one of the ideal perks of coming here, is you’ve created a sort of retreat, sort of a vacation giving the people the opportunity to enjoy the holiest of days while simultaneously enjoying the comforts of such a luxury resort,” Andrusier said. He said at least 400 people and likely more — some from France, Israel, Brazil, and Canada — are planning to come for the holiday, booking about 200 rooms.

But Andrusier said many visitors are overwhelmed by the date of the holiday, which will be followed by an earlier-than-usual Yom Kippur and Hannukah.

“For many people, they’re still in summer mode,” he said. “They usually have a month to get ready — and here it’s around the corner.”

Gabe Saglie, senior editor of Travelzoo, said it’s too early to tell whether a busy Labor Day could predict a similarly travel-heavy Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“After a relatively healthy and robust summer, is that going to translate to people splurging again for some of the holidays?” he said. “If the industry feels that they are, it could send some prices up. That’s kind of on a wait-and-see mode.”