For those who don’t live in Florida, Miami might — to them — look a little something like this right now: A vast swampland, devastated by Hurricane Irma, where residents live in the dark and take boats down its flooded roadways.
One Twitter user called the imagined assault of Hurricane Irma on the region “one of our country’s biggest disasters in history.” The city is flooded, said user @serenabeena in a now-deleted tweet. Several concerned would-be tourists want to know if Miami will recover by December. One traveler even thought Hurricane Maria had passed through Miami, “or passing through — not sure if Maria is affecting Miami,” she amended via parenthetical on TripAdvisor.
And some runners coming for the Miami Marathon in January — four full months after Irma’s passage — expect to be swimming in the streets instead of sprinting. Their calls were enough to raise alarm, said marathon co-founder Frankie Ruiz.
“Between the imagery of the storm showing that it took over all of Florida, people were thinking if Jacksonville lost power, Miami should be like an nuclear bomb dropped down there. I’m pretty sure Miami is no longer there,” Ruiz said of the perception issues now plaguing Miami-Dade’s tourism industry.
South Florida hotels and attractions were largely spared by Irma, but the $25 billion Miami-Dade tourism industry now has to focus on rehabilitating its image — a greater challenge in the social-media age than during storms of the past. Twitter was little more than an idea, let alone a website, in 2005 when Hurricane Wilma pummeled the area.
Ruiz said perception challenges have forced the marathon to create a new marketing campaign, called It’s Not Miami Without You, to encourage travelers to return to the region. Part of the plan is to put out current images of the county to show it’s not a storm-ravaged wasteland.
And while Ruiz expects the marathon to go as planned despite the storm-related inquiries, it’s important for the local tourism industry that it does. The marathon draws more than 22,000 runners, 67 percent of them from outside Miami-Dade County, and had an economic impact of about $43 million this year.
The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau has been running all out with a message of a recovered and open-for-business Miami. The tourism bureau launched an “unprecedented value-offer promotion” this week through Oct. 31 that combines six of its monthly deal promotions: Miami Spice, Miami Spa, Miami Hotel, Miami Attractions, Miami Museums and Shop Miami Month.
“Our response had to be proportional and bold to blunt the misconception that was out there that we weren’t open for business,” said Rolando Aedo, chief marketing officer for the bureau. “We did feel that urgency at looking at the social media buzz and media coverage. And we did work more quickly than ever and more aggressively than ever.”
Aedo said the marketing arm is doubling its effort to target business travelers because meeting planners who schedule visits to Miami often more than a year in advance are more susceptible to possible disruptions in the region.
So far, no meetings have canceled, outside of the Miami International Auto Show, which canceled its expo for the first time in nearly 50 years after Irma swept through Miami-Dade just days before the car show was set to open. Because the show draws many locals, Aedo said he doesn’t expect it to impact tourism in a measurable way.
The Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau is up to much of the same, extending its Spatember and CraveGFL promotions through Oct. 15, rather ending Sept. 30. Just two days after the passage of Irma, Fort Lauderdale put out press releases saying greater Fort Lauderdale’s tourism industry “rebounds after Hurricane Irma” featuring a photo of a wind-swept but otherwise unblemished beach.
The malice of Irma
Despite the aggressive marketing, the region’s tourism industry has taken a hit.
Airlines and cruise lines are expected to have lost millions of dollars because of canceled flights, closed airports and seaports, in addition to relief efforts that led cruise lines to cancel sailings and send rescue ships to the Caribbean. Some airlines also capped fares for evacuees, creating another potential loss, experts said. Hurricane Harvey cost United Airlines alone an estimated $150 million. (The airline’s second largest hub is in Houston.)
“Airlines lose hundreds of millions of dollars when hurricanes come,” said Seth Kaplan, managing partner at trade publication Airline Weekly. “Irma is going to be somewhere in the hundreds of millions [of dollars] for airlines.”
Major tourist attractions, including Zoo Miami, Jungle Island and the Miami Seaquarium, plan to remain closed as they pick up debris and repair damage until at least October, though none of the three have announced a set reopening date. The museums, Coral Castle, the Deering Estate and Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens have already reopened.
A handful of hotels remain closed after the storm with opening dates also slated for October, including The Raleigh, the Tides and the Ritz Carlton South Beach. But hotel expert Scott Berman said he expects several other properties are not functioning at normal levels, and may have rooms or areas of the hotel out of order.
“I can tell by the way my phone is ringing that there is quite a bit of business disruption and there will be a lot of hotels filing insurance claims around this disaster,” said Berman, Miami-based industry leader for hospitality and leisure at PwC.
Many properties are also offering discounted rates as the region returns to normalcy, hoping cheap rooms will be a magnet for potential visitors, a practice Berman said is essential in the rebuilding effort.
“It had to be done because they needed to send a message to the marketplace that we are open,” he said.
In the days before and immediately after Irma, South Florida’s hotel performance took a steep nose dive.
In Miami-Dade, the number of room nights sold dipped as low as 40 to 60 percent below the same time last year, according to data analytics firm STR. Revenue and occupancy dropped by a similar measure.
But there are some signs of recovery: Hotel rooms are filling up again to pre-Irma levels. After hotels reached a hurricane-induced occupancy low of 27 percent during Irma, by Sept. 16 they returned to usual levels at nearly 72 percent occupancy. Room nights sold and revenue were trending just about 2 to 5 percentage points behind the same time last year.
In Broward, the impact on the hotel industry was even slighter, with occupancy dropping to 42 percent at the lowest point in the storm, and trending back up to 76 percent Sept. 16, the most recent date for which data is available. Demand is now about flat with last year and revenue is up, by more than 14 percent on average last weekend.
In the long term, Berman expects Miami-Dade to actually experience a bump in tourism because so many resort destinations in the Keys, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and other areas of the Caribbean will be offline because of storm damage that, in some places, was catastrophic.
“In a perverse way, it can be beneficial,” Berman said.
This time next year though, travelers might still remember what was a seemingly unrelenting hurricane season that began with Harvey in Texas and, the region hopes, will be bookended by Maria in the Caribbean.
“I feel there is going to be a follow up period where people will say, ‘Hurricane season? Why would I do my wedding in Miami then?’ ” said travel expert Terry Fisher. “You might see a change in tourism patterns.”
Rebuilding the Keys
Most of all, Fisher fears, small businesses will suffer during the recovery period — especially in the Florida Keys.
“For airlines to have airplanes stuck and the planes can’t fly out, for hotels to lose that revenue, that’s pretty significant,” said Fisher, CEO if concierge and destination guise companies Mapperarti and DigiMapps. “But for the small businesses, it could wipe them out.”
In the Keys, an official reopening date of Sunday has been set, though officials are still asking tourists to exercise caution and call before visiting an attraction to checking in to a hotel. Key West International Airport is open for commercial flights and cruises began docking in Key West again as early as this past Sunday with Royal Caribbean International’s Empress of the Seas. Many hotels have reopened or plan to reopen by Sunday, while others still are in disrepair.
Mike Borguss, grandson of the founder of the family-owned Dolphins Plus attractions in Key Largo, said some properties are a year or even two away from reopening again. The damage increases further south in the Keys.
One of his properties, Dolphins Plus Oceanside in Key Largo, suffered five to six feet of storm surge to the first floor of the swim-with-dolphins attraction’s main building. Five commercial refrigerators and two commercial freezers, priced between $10,000 and $18,000, were lost. Another 10,000 pounds of fish for the attraction’s eight dolphins will be given away as chum.
But Dolphins Plus is lucky, he said, because its Dolphins Plus Bayside facility further north in Key Largo was largely unscathed, and the resources there can be used to provide vet services and meals for the dolphins at Oceanside. Still, construction at an upscale hotel project near the Bayside location more than 10 years in the works will be delayed, putting another blip on the Borguss’ radar screen.
While Borguss expects to start welcoming a small trickle of visitors from the mainland to the Oceanside facility in the coming weeks, it will be long before it’s operating at full capacity, and welcoming Florida Keys tourists.
“Only time will tell,” Borguss said. “We are playing a guessing game and trying to do our best to survive.”