Florida visitors take hurricanes in stride

VALERIE STRYKER, HER husband and their three kids watched as Hurricane Frances bore down on Florida and their Walt Disney World vacation in September 2004.

The family spent most of those nervous hours in their Orlando hotel with drawn shades and storm reports from Disney staff slipped under their door or by voicemail. When it was finally over, the parks were shut-tered for two days, the kids missed the first day of school because of airport closings and the trip home required a maddening three-flight ramble from Tampa to Miami, then on to Boston and finally New York City.

But perhaps the biggest surprise? The Strykers — and apparently millions like them — are not afraid of coming back, with no plans to let further predictions of heavy Atlantic storm seasons slow them.

Despite the state being hit or affected by eight storms during the past two years, a record 85.8 million people visited Florida last year, generating $57 billion in economic activity and $3.4 billion for government coffers. That's 6 million more visitors than in 2004, a 7.6 percent increase. Visit Florida, a public-private organization that promotes tourism, is predicting a 3.2 percent increase this year.

"We didn't really know what to expect," Stryker, a homemaker said about getting stuck visiting during a hurricane. "It ended up being not as bad."

Conventions affected

Still, tourism officials are concerned about the spate of storms, which arrived just as some of the state's destinations had finally built themselves into year-round draws, and not just sunny spots for snow-weary Northerners to spend a week each winter.

Even the devastation Hurricane Katrina caused Louisiana and Mississippi is affecting how some potential visitors view Florida.

"The challenge is with Katrina, what happened out there got so much global coverage. It was a scenario that did not happen at all in Florida, but you still have the power of the perception reaching people across the world with these kinds of images," Visit Florida spokeswoman Vanessa Welter said.

Most of the anxiety involves summer convention business, as some planners have concerns about scheduling conventions during hurricane season.

The Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau, which covers much of southwest Florida, said meeting traffic has fallen during the busiest hurricane months (August to October) since Hurricane Charley hit north of there in 2004 — even though the area didn't suffer any serious damage.

"Meeting planners are reluctant to book a conference during a time when they think that something might happen to alter the schedule," bureau spokeswoman JoNell Modys said. "It's a great deal of work for them to have to change all the arrangements, notify conference attendees and rebook the space."

To soothe convention organizers' fears, Visit Florida last year began offering event insurance up to $200,000 to defray marketing and rescheduling costs if there is a hurricane disruption.

Flexible, savvy

In contrast, Modys said, leisure travelers have become increasingly more flexible and forecast-savvy. They're still coming, she said, but more likely to book briefer trips, even if they're looking for a longer vacation.

South Florida took its biggest 2005 hit in October, when Wilma left tourists in hard-hit areas with no electricity, closed pools, wet carpets in hotels and nightlife-killing curfews. Hotel occupancy was down 10 percent in Miami and 21 percent in Fort Lauderdale that month, but both areas still saw record numbers in the year.

Dennis Edwards, senior vice president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, said more than 70 conventions and sporting events have been booked between June and October, ranging from the National Association of Black Accountants to a Seventh-Day Adventist meeting.

To sweeten the deal for leisure travelers, several businesses in the area are offering two-for-one packages on diving, sailing and spas.

Despite its central location away from the coasts, the Orlando area also saw marked declines in hotel occupancy from August to October last year — a 10 percent drop from the previous August and a 7.6 percent decline in September.

An economic research firm contracted by the bureau projected 3.7 percent growth in 2006.

Seasoned storm vets

David Mullett, a Web development and Internet hosting businessman from Ontario, will be among those returning this season. He and his wife visit Disney three or four times a year, including last year when Wilma blew in.

The two scooped up enough food and water for three or four days and bought games and playing cards to pass the time. It turned out they didn't need them — Wilma passed much farther south, nagging the Orlando area only with heavy wind and rain.

"I think it was about noon the (telephone message) light flashed, I picked up phone and Disney said the worst had passed, parks would be open in an hour. And off we went," he said.

They're coming back again this October — whether the hurricanes do or not.