Miami Beach is having a bit of an identity crisis this Memorial Day Weekend.
The Beach will host its annual Urban Beach Week, which attracts thousands of travelers from around the U.S. for a weekend of parties — of the street, club and yacht varieties, — music festivals and plenty of day drinking.
At the same time, the Beach is hosting the Air & Sea Show for the first time, a military-inspired, family-friendly show with high-speed fighter jets, massive bombers, powerboat races and parachuting U.S. Army “Golden Knights.” The city hopes the addition will reposition the weekend, from a three-day revelry to a weekend with more appeal for locals and families hoping to take a staycation.
But can it be both? How the Beach will manage the combination of two seemingly opposite events is still to be seen, but for the county’s tourism industry, the weekend’s success is of crucial importance.
In 2016, Miami-Dade County hotels suffered the biggest drop in business since the Great Recession. Mosquito-borne illness Zika hit the tourism industry hard last year, along with a slew of other factors. Hotels were 2.7 percent less full last year overall, compared to 2015, according to data and analytics firm STR. They commanded rates that were nearly 3 percent lower than what hotels charged in 2015 and revenue overall dropped by 1.5 percent.
The challenges poured into the early months of 2017 and are just now starting to dissipate, with rates, revenue and demand increasing again.
“We are hopefully coming out of a tourism season in the last year that was a little hard so we are also just trying to promote our local hotel market, our local restaurants,” said Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales.
The weekend’s new direction could help attract more locals, balancing off shortages in domestic and particularly international travel, which has taken a hit from a strong U.S. dollar and weak Latin American economy.
“It’s a bit of a rude awakening for Miami Beach hotel operators, who have been blessed with a seven-year run of record top and bottom line growth,” said hotel expert Max Comess, an executive at Johnson Resort Properties. “Miami Beach sales managers will have to go out, block and tackle, and fight for business in an increasingly competitive environment.”
Historically, hotels have targeted travelers around the U.S. with their deals and promotions for Memorial Day. But this year, some properties are getting more creative about their deals in an effort to boost their performance.
The Betsy Hotel, for instance, is playing up its prime location on 14th Street and Ocean Drive in its Memorial Day Air & Sea Show offer (the Air & Sea Show is expected to draw viewers to the beach and Lummus Park between 10th and 14th Streets). The deal includes a $50 food and beverage credit per day for a minimum two-day stay, valid for a week beginning Wednesday.
“The community as a whole has been preoccupied with making everyone feel welcome [on past Memorial Day Weekends],” said Betsy owner Jonathan Plutzik. “And now with this big family-oriented event of the Air & Sea Show, it is just a reminder that the Beach, Ocean Drive, the community is comfortable and open to everybody.”
Some residents are buying in. John Aleman, who lives on the Beach, has spent the past five years in Delray Beach for Memorial Day. This year, he’s sticking home to see the show.
Other hotels are going for a more open atmosphere altogether, whether locals are staying home for the Air & Sea Show or Urban Beach Week, which promises to bring back favorites like the Bayfront Park Best of the Best reggae concert.
The W South Beach, which has previously limited the amount of rooms available on Memorial Day Weekend, is doing away with restrictions this year, said Ramón von Schukkmann, the W’s director sales and marketing.
The hotel is also targeting locals with a Florida resident deal that includes a 15 percent discount on room rates, one-car complimentary valet, a complimentary in-room movie per day and discounts for its spa and restaurant.
“[2016 was] very pleasant, very positive, there were no main issues. That encourages us this year to open the hotel fully,” von Schukkmann said, adding that the hotel is also trying to diversify its revenue streams as it deals with slowdowns in visitors from other key markets, including Brazil and Russia.
Memorial Day weekend has shaken off much of the stigma created by back-to-back deaths in 2011 and 2012. The first, the fatal shooting of an erratic motorist on Collins Avenue, also left four bystanders wounded after police opened fire on assailant Raymond Herisse. The following year, the Causeway Cannibal struck. Rudy Eugene attacked a homeless man on the MacArthur Causeway, viciously chewing his face, before police shot and killed him.
In recent years, the weekend has seen considerably less police activity. The number of arrests on Miami Beach last year were less than half the number in 2013, when there were about 414.
Despite the changes, some locals are still staying away, citing the crowds and traffic.
“Miami Beach is way too crowded. I [will] go to Bill Baggs [Cape Florida State Park], and sleep in my own bed,” said South Miami resident Robert Black.
It doesn’t help that Miami Beach hotels are expected to command the second-highest average room rates in the country this weekend, after New York City, according to an analysis by HotelsCombined. The average hotel room rate is expected to be 6 percent higher this year over Memorial Day Weekend in 2016 at $254.
And not all hotels have embraced the staycation marketing pitch the Beach is pushing. Miami Beach ads peppering the radio entice locals to “stay the weekend,” but few hotels have specific staycation deals targeted at Memorial Day Weekend this year. Instead, they have Florida resident deals that run all year, but the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau and the city of Miami Beach are trying get those in front of locals who may be considering staying at a hotel for the holiday this weekend.
While the weekend is expected to be strong overall for hotels, experts said, it’ll still be an experiment into whether this year’s more varied lineup is attractive enough for local families to bear the traffic.
For now, Middle Miami Beach resident Eli Portnoy says he won’t venture south of 41st Street.
“The vast majority of residents I know feel we should take a wait-and-see attitude to see how well this alternative weekend planning works out,” Portnoy said. “We appreciate the city is making an effort to counteract some of the less than savory experiences to be had Memorial Day Weekend in South Beach and hope over time the stigma to avoid South Beach during this weekend is removed.”
This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their insights with WLRN and the Miami Herald. Become a source at wlrn.org/topic/public-insight-network