Georges doesn't douse Key West fest

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KEY WEST, Fla. -- Only weeks after being struck by Hurricane Georges, Key West's hotels and other tourism facilities were playing to virtually full houses for this year's Fantasy Fest from Oct. 23 to Nov. 1.

"I heard that it was so busy that some people were staying as far away as Marathon and driving down," said Harold Wheeler, marketing director for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council (TDC).

Most hoteliers and operators of attractions credited the speedy recovery to the TDC's ad campaign that effectively countered media reports it said created misconceptions about the severity of Georges' impact.

Some comments from hotelier and operators follow:

  • "It takes some time to erase the pictures on CNN and on Page 1 of USA Today, especially when they used the worst scenes they could, but the TDC did a wonderful job of responding, and the emergency money [about $2 million] was well spent," said Chris Aldieri, general manager of the Hyatt Key West. The Hyatt, like most other hotels, sustained landscape damage but little damage to the hotel itself.
  • "We were sold out for Fantasy Fest," said Aldieri, "and, though I hate to put it this way, from looking at our advance winter bookings, it seems that media coverage about the hurricane actually created a lot of good publicity for us. It's as if a lot of people watched the news and said to themselves, 'Hey, we haven't been to Key West in a while.' "

    Nevertheless, hotels that did not experience significant damage incurred expenses in refunds and lost business. "We lost three weddings that weekend," said Aldieri. "We run close to 100% occupancy on weekends and, at an average room rate of $200 for 120 rooms, you can estimate our losses. I would estimate our losses for catering alone at $25,000."

  • Although the Marriott Casa Marina incurred water and landscaping damage during the hurricane, repairs have been running ahead of schedule, said Terry Shimp, director of sales and marketing. The hotel had been refurbishing its suites building when Georges struck.
  • "If you came into the hotel now, you wouldn't know there had been a hurricane," said Shimp. "Our pool, restaurant and other facilities are all fully operational, and most rooms have reopened. Our bookings for January and other winter months look very good. In fact, we're running ahead of our normal winter pattern. We had a lot of group business during the storm, much of which had to be canceled and refunded ... we took a big hit. Fortunately, some of our groups were able to reschedule."

    Shimp said the Casa Marina's sister property, the Marriott Reach, "fared pretty well" during the storm.

  • The Best Western Key Ambassador was also back to normal, with all 101 rooms open, according to Joe Shurmer, general manager. "We were sold out for the Fantasy Fest weekend, from [Oct. 29]," he said. During the hurricane, the hotel experienced some water and wind damage as well as some roof damage.
  • "We had several groups and two wedding parties booked during the hurricane," said Shurmer. "We incurred a lot of refunds, as we were closed for almost three weeks because we didn't want to reopen until we could guarantee our visitors a quality experience."

    Although the hotel had some cancellations for October (but none for November or December), Shurmer anticipates the impact to be short term and expects winter bookings to be heavy.

  • "We came out of it [Hurricane Georges] really well," said Bob Lehman, general manager of the Holiday Inn La Concha. "We had some water damage, but that was resolved quickly." Lehman said bookings for this year's Fantasy Fest were heavier than usual.
  • "I think that in addition to our usual visitors, a lot of curiosity-seekers decided to come down. My hat is off to the TDC," said Lehman. "It took the lead and spent something like $1.5 million in additional advertising, which really put us back on track fast."

  • "We were fully booked during the hurricane and the following week, as well, but because of the hurricane we had to make refunds of approximately $17,000," said Libby Curtis, who, with her husband, Mark, owns the Wicker House, a 21-room property in Key West's Old Town.
  • "We lost a couple of big trees that landed in our pool but we had no structural damage to our buildings. We had a contract with a big New Age group booked to come here to study dolphins over a period of seven months," said Curtis. "We had to refund part of their next-to-last stay and all four nights of their last stay."

    Although business was down 50% immediately following Georges, Curtis said the recovery was quick. "We're already completely booked for Christmas," she said.

  • The Hemingway House, Key West's most visited attraction, lost a couple of trees but had no structural damage, according to Linda Larsen, executive assistant. "We had calls from all over to find out if our cats were safe," said Larsen, referring to the house's famous feline inhabitants. Staffers were happy to assure callers that the cats -- some of whom opted for shelter in the house's basement and storage areas during the storm -- did just fine.
  • "We lost two weeks of business, if you count the days before the storm, when visitors were evacuated, and the period after, when tourists were not yet being allowed back in to Key West," said Jill London, owner of Floridays, which operates luxury Champagne Sunset sails and snorkeling cruises as well as weddings and corporate sailboat charters. "Fortunately, hurricane season isn't our busy season, but we still lost thousands of dollars. But the week after Key West reopened, business was actually better than it usually is at this time of year," London said.
  • "We were heavily booked during Fantasy Fest, and the winter looks like it's going to be busy, too," said Elizabeth Ninomiya, a spokeswoman for American Eagle. "We weren't charging cancellation fees to passengers whose travel plans were interrupted by the hurricane," said Ninomiya. "We were very flexible about helping them rebook."
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