Signs of a spring break rebound: busy body piercers

Some signs spring break has arrived: loud beaches, busy tattoo parlors and a quiet morning at Key West's Fairfield Inn and Suites.

"The free breakfast is usually a huge draw," General Manager Chris Majchrowicz said.

But even with most of the 106-room hotel filled with spring breakers, Majchrowicz saw breakfast service down nearly 50 percent this week.

"They're very late sleepers."

Spring break brings its own set of economic indicators and demand drivers, some more painful than others.

The piercing business triples in March at the Salvation Tattoo Lounge in South Beach as college students pay to have holes poked through (in rough order of popularity) navels, noses and ears.

"March is like the make-it-or-break-it month'' for piercers, general manager Sarah Schoenemann said from a purple couch in the Washington Avenue shop. ‘‘It pays for everything the rest of the year."


Much of the tourism industry counts on spring break for a boost in profits, since it arrives at the peak of South Florida's vacation season.

Hotels have been enjoying a recovery this year, with new figures from Smith Travel Research showing per-room revenue surged 27 percent last month in Miami-Dade -- helped along by the Feb. 7 Super Bowl.

At the Fontainebleau Miami Beach nightclub, LIV, management rewrote the schedule to capitalize on spring break.

Usually closed on Monday, the club brought in Jersey Shore star Mike "The Situation'' Sorrentino to host a spring break party -- with some students paying $50 to enter during peak hours.

"Demand goes crazy," said David Grutman, a partner in the nightclub. "We opened to a packed house."

Tattoo sales surge during spring break, but piercers say their business spikes more.

Not only does the cheap price appeal to college students -- piercing typically costs between $20 and $50 per hole, compared to $200 for a simple tattoo -- but so does the ability to undo the decision.

"You change yourself in a matter of a couple of minutes," said Linda "Little'' Gilbert, a 24-year-old piercer at Miami Tattoo Co. in South Beach. "And you can go back to your regular self when you feel like it."

As with many sectors of the tourism economy, piercers sense a modest comeback under way after a rough 2009. But stakes are high for this spring break, as shops like Salvation count on a surge in pierced nostrils and impaled eyebrows to signal a return to normalcy.

"It's hard," said Eric Graham, a Salvation piercer who boasts seven piercings in his ears and one in his tongue. "Any money anyone had, they spent it on anything but this. It's slowly starting to pick up."

Brisk breezes and chilly temperatures haven't hurt turnout in Key West, said Fairfield's Majchrowicz, who thinks this spring break will be the busiest for his hotel since 2007.

"It's the worst weather we have had for decades," Majchrowicz said. "It didn't faze them one bit. We're not booking trips for them. They don't snorkel. They don't fish. They sleep late, sit around the pool and then hit the bar. That's it."

For Pat Cox, a piercer at Cool Cat Tattoo in Fort Lauderdale, spring break typically doubles his business. But he has accepted that his boom times of piercing have passed.

He mostly blames Fort Lauderdale's concerted effort to become a less popular spring break destination.

"Back in the 90s, I was making a lot more money. I was making $400 or $500 a shift," said Cox, 29. "Now I'm making maybe $200 a week."

But even a destination awash in breakers -- Miami Beach finished sixth in Orbitz's ranking of top spring break spots this year -- can't shield body-art shops from the economy.

In South Beach's competitive tattoo corridor on Washington Avenue -- where eight shops compete within seven blocks of each other -- Miami Ink has felt the pinch, co-owner Chris Nuñez said.

"Our last couple of spring breaks, there's been a big difference," said Nuñez, a star in the reality show (since canceled) that shared a name with the shop. "It's not crazy like it has been."


While tattoo artists can trade on their penciling and coloring skills, piercers mostly just pinch and poke. That keeps prices down, leaving piercers to rely on volume to pay the bills.

"I've pierced so many nipples this weekend," said Dani McGuinn while working a night piercing shift at Salvation. "The tattoo artists can work half a day and get away with it if they're good."

Shortly before 10 p.m., Kristin Moore, a 21-year-old junior at Howard University, handed over her father's credit card for a $50 nipple piercing as three friends sat on a nearby couch.

"My parents have no idea," Moore said. "They would kill me."