Suite Deal: Hotels Are Packed

Finding a room at Kendall’s Comfort Suites Hotel shouldn’t be a problem a week after Thanksgiving. But don’t tell that to the more than two dozen would-be guests who were turned away Friday from the sold-out motel.

“It’s completely different than last year,” said General Manager Tulio Espinal. “There was a lot more demand than we all anticipated.”

Business is so good that Comfort Suites expects to finish this year renting rooms for 12 percent more than in 2004.

Despite a year marked by unprecedented hurricane worries, both room prices and occupancy rates at hotels in South Florida are soaring. Chalk it up to a rise in luxury hotels, cheap flights to Fort Lauderdale and South Beach’s continued status as the country’s top tropical party spot.

“Miami is one of the markets in the United States that bounced back very quickly from the 9/11 events,” said Patrick Ford, president of Lodging Econometrics in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. “It’s been roaring forward since then.”

In the first half of November, the average hotel room in the Miami area cost $134 per day, up 19 percent from the year before. The pricey rooms haven’t scared off tourists: Miami-Dade is close to breaking its historic occupancy record of 71 percent, set in 1997. And Broward County says it breaks an occupancy record almost every month.

The South Florida success comes amid a nationwide recovery in both tourism and business travel, following an extended slump after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Miami hotels far outpace the nation’s in the rise in rates and occupancy, even though some are worried about the impact of hurricanes or an economic slowdown in the future.

In a way, the rate climb reflects broader trends in South Florida’s hotel industry.

Luxury chains, which shunned Miami until Loews opened on South Beach in 1999 and the Mandarin Oriental came to Brickell Key in 2000, now are here in full force.

And more ritzy hotels are on the way: Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach will have a W by 2007, Shangri-La plans a luxury hotel on Miami’s Watson Island, and Ritz-Carlton wants to open its fourth Miami-area property, a time share resort on Miami Beach.

Scott Berman, a hotel analyst with PricewaterhouseCoopers, notes that five years ago no South Florida hotels averaged room rates about $200. Now six do.

In the busy winter season, Miami-Dade hit a record $159.20 per night in March, up 14 percent. Even the 2005 hurricane season didn’t dent rates: in Miami-Dade, rooms cost 11 percent to 16 percent more between June and September than last year. Broward enjoyed a similar rally, except for a dip to a still brisk 6 percent growth in September.

In fact, when the storms came, some hotels enjoyed a boost as displaced residents checked in.

“The hurricane has helped us quite a bit,” said Frank Deslongchamps, director of sales and marketing for Pompano Beach’s Beachcomber Resort, where rates have climbed since Wilma’s Oct. 24 assault.

Future gains aren’t assured.

An economic slowdown could reverse local gains. And four large hotels — the Yankee Clipper in Fort Lauderdale, Sheraton Biscayne Bay in Miami, the Sonesta Key Biscayne, and the 1,300-room Fontainebleau — plan to close down most or all of their property this year for major renovations. A fifth, the 600-room Sheraton Biscayne Bay, was demolished last month to make way for condos and a much smaller hotel.

And there is the big worry: hurricanes. “Florida is really getting tough,” said Konrad Pramsohler, president of American Receptive Tours in Miami Lakes, which focuses on the German market and had 1,000 people cancel for 2006 after this year’s storms.

Still, for now, the hotel business is thriving and burnishing South Florida’s status as a pricey place to visit.

“In January of 1999, we could not have gotten Art Basel. We did not have the product,” Miami-Dade tourism chief William Talbert III said of the Swiss art show that starts this weekend in Miami Beach. “These are some of the richest people in the world.”

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