Holiday occupancy levels bring joy to Fla. Keys

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KEY WEST, Fla. -- Florida Keys hotels are beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to encouraging occupancy levels during the Christmas period.

Occupancies averaged 85% to 90% for the two weeks of the Christmas season, according to Peter Ilchuk, executive director of the Lodging Association of Key West and the Florida Keys.

"Most importantly, general managers are telling me their reservations phones are ringing again," Ilchuk said.

At the 120-room Hyatt Key West, Mohammad Gharavi, general manager, told Travel Weekly his property was sold out for the holiday period and that it had scattered sold-out dates for the rest of the winter.

Travel agent business, about 25% of the hotel's bookings, is holding up, he added.

As a boutique hotel handling smaller incentives groups and meetings, the Hyatt Key West was less affected by cancellations than hotels that accommodate national meetings, he said.

And social business, much of it tied to air travel, is showing a late-booking pattern, he added.

While the property trimmed its rates after Sept. 11, the daily rate is now "catching up to normal," Gharavi said.

At the 200-room Westin Key Largo, run by MeriStar Hotels & Resorts, Glenn Hoover, general manager, said the property did better than expected in December, with more room nights than last year but at a lower yield.

Rates are roughly 20% to 30% lower than last winter's, with a range of $169 to $269 per night for a standard unit.

Although winter demand has improved, at this time there are no sold-out dates.

European wholesaler business is down by 20% to 25% vs. last winter, and domestic wholesale productivity is off by 10%, Hoover said.

Group business is more of a challenge because "everyone knows there are deals out there," he said. Agents continue to account for 10% to 15% of the overall business.

At Hawk's Cay Resort, Duck Key, which has 177 rooms and suites and 269 villas, holiday occupancy ran 92% to 100%, said Ursula Boll, vice president of sales and marketing.

During the first three weeks of December, some promotional rates were available, but the property still posted higher revenue than it did in December 2000.

The winter booking window shrunk from four- to 10-weeks out a year ago, to two- to six-weeks ahead, Boll said.

The hotel "values its relationship with agents, whom it considers ambassadors," Boll said. As a result, agents are free to book any rate they see on the property's Web site.

Meetings groups this winter remain strong, she said, noting the resort increased its function space last March.

Some of this strength is from companies that canceled foreign meetings and decided to stay in the U.S.

Ilchuk, of the lodging association, advised properties whose average daily room rates decreased during the past quarter to institute "bona fide value-added incentives" in conjunction with a strong marketing program (see sidebar below).

Said Harold Wheeler, director of the Florida Keys Tourist Development Council, "Hope-fully, we may have an economic recovery sooner than expected, leading to a strong second half of the year."

But even with an improving economy, the shorter booking window is making financial forecasting difficult for tourism-based businesses, Ilchuk noted.

"People are being cautious about planning ahead, but at least they are still taking vacations," he said.

Visit Web for winter deals

KEY WEST, Fla. -- Florida Keys visitor interests are offering value-added deals for the peak winter season at www.fla-keys.com.

The move was in response to a Visit Florida focus group study revealing that today's travelers expect to find value-added deals year-round, not just in the off-season.

The value-added deals for winter include free extra nights; off-season rates on weekdays; credits for dining and spa activities, and packages that throw in ground transportation, fishing or a sunset cruise. The deals are updated daily on the site.

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