Florida operators remain hopeful

Florida operators remain hopeful

Jack Hayes

MIAMI — While world and national media continue their sensational coverage of Florida’s latest “tourist crime wave,” restaurant and hotel operators here and across the state are trying to remain optimistic about fall and winter traffic from visiting internationals.

On the eve of their key tourist season — even despite reports that some foreign travelers are being told to stay away from Florida following two recent and separate attacks on German and British vacationers in Miami and Tallahassee — many operators expect international clientele to be just as visible this year as last.

“We may be down a little in local traffic from last fall, but that’s only because Hurricane Andrew brought us so much business,” predicted Ron Sampiero, food and beverage vice president for The Continental Cos.

That is also despite the Florida Division of Tourism’s move to cancel temporarily all domestic and international travel ads in response to what it now calls “a tourist crisis.”

Since last October nine foreign visitors have been murdered in Florida–most of them in robbery attempts near their hotels or on the highway. The toll includes four Germans, two Britons, two Canadians and a diplomat from Venezuela.

Even if the bad news is significant, foreign visitors are hardly abandoning Florida.

“Pirates and outlaws have been hassling people since the dawn of travel,” said Allen Susser, chef-owner of Chef Allen in North Miami Beach. “What we’re seeing here is a modern version of it. It’s horrible, and we’re all working to put a stop to it but the tourists aren’t staying home. The good side of Florida far outshines the bad.”

According to Mark Militello of Mark’s Place in North Miami, international patronage is holding at the same level as a year ago. “It would require a government shutdown on travel to the U.S. to keep the foreign tourists away from here,” Militello declared.

According to Sampiero, who operates a number of hotel dining concepts in southern Florida, summer tourist business was steady in spite of shocking stories last spring about the robbery and murder of a German woman in Miami.

More recently, when television host Oprah Winfrey aired live here following this month’s tragic murder of another German tourist, operators complained the “overhype” had gone too far.

“You can’t convince me people weren’t shot in Chicago that same day,” Sampiero said. “Crime is something that exists in all cities. But the perception of crime being more rampant in Miami just isn’t accurate.”

In fact, one week later two British tourists were attacked in a remote rest area near Tallahassee, some 450 miles northwest of Miami. The Tallahassee tourist killing also became fuel for the growing case being made in foreign tabloid journals that “visitors are in danger everywhere in Florida.”

While five of the nine tourist murders were committed in or around Miami, two had taken place in Orlando, one in Fort Myers and one in Tallahassee.

“The talk around the tourist trade in Britain is that business to Florida is going to drop significantly,” said an agent in American Express’ travel office in London. But the same agent predicted that Britain-to-Florida travel bookings will rally strongly in 1994.

“People will have forgotten about it by next year, and it will rocket back again,” the agent said. “Yet for now — the way these killings are being publicized–Florida looks a bit like a danger zone.”

About 8 million international tourists — 1.1 million from the United Kingdom alone — visited Florida last year, said Dean Sullivan, a spokesman for the Division of Tourism.

According to most operators, the flow of international tourists comes in a series of waves — the largest between October and Christmas. From late April until early September, the much smaller summer season takes place.

While the summer crowds consist of middle-class Asians, Europeans and South Americans, fall and winter lure wealthier visitors from the same markets as well as from Canada.

Sullivan explained the 30-day advertising moratorium was a decision based solely on economics, similar to moves made by airlines after serious crash incidents that trigger extensive media coverage.

“Florida isn’t giving up on tourism by any means,” Sullivan said. “We’ll make a tremendous impact when the ads resume because that money is going to be spent.” Florida’s 1993 tourism ad budget is $6.7 million.

According to Sullivan’s office, 17 percent of Florida’s tourists are from outside the United States. Furthermore, foreign travel in Florida rose 20.2 percent between January and April of this year.

While some operators deduced that foreign tourism plummeted sharply after the most gruesome of the murders in April — when a German visitor was dragged from her car, robbed and run over–Sullivan said his office found otherwise.

“We were in close touch with tour operators back then,” Sullivan related. “We found that some had immediate cancellations. But within three weeks of the incident it was back to normal.”

American Vacations, a Miami-based tour operator working with European and South American groups, reported likewise. “We didn’t have one cancellation after the [two September] murders,” said an American Vacations agent. “And we’re still booking for fall and for summer 1994.”

Nevertheless, Arturo Soares, the manager-maitre d’ at Paparazzi Restaurant on Miami Beach, said there was less foreign tourism and revenue for the city of Miami this summer. “The falloff wasn’t that tremendous, but it was noticeable,” Soares said.

The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Florida governor’s office both have responded quickly to the tourist tragedies. After the spring incident a law was passed requiring car rental companies to remove decals and coded license plates from their vehicles.

Meanwhile, millions of crime safety brochures have been made available to international tourists.

Mayco Villafana, spokesman for the GMCVB, outlined an 18-point anti-crime strategy — including eight programs either already implemented or due for approval this year — aimed at stopping the criminals who prey on tourists.

Gov. Lawton Chiles also ordered 50 additional Highway Patrol officers onto Florida’s roadways in response to the latest tourist killing.

Indeed, operators are joining the fight against tourist crime by educating themselves.

Madonna Parsons, the special events coordinator for Dan Marino’s American Sports Bar & Grill in Miami’s Coconut Grove, said she and other operators discussed the recent tourist tragedies at a local marketing seminar. “We need to find more ways to inform the tourists without worrying them,” Parsons said.

At least one hospitality veteran is challenging the industry to flank the tourist crime issue with its own positive response. “We should tell our international guests we’re going to take care of them no matter what happens — tell them to hand over their money in the event of a robbery — and not to risk being hurt,” said Gary Kerns, marketing vice president for Orlando, Fla.-based Planet Hollywood and Orlando Service Group.

“We could easily set up a network to assist tourist victims,” Kerns said. “We could guarantee food, shelter, transportation — any assistance they might need in the event of a tragedy. That’s what hospitality is all about.”

COPYRIGHT 1993 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning