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It’s beginning to look a lot like a record winter tourism season for Palm Beach County.

Brisk hotel reservations, group bookings and the return of international travel are back for Florida’s No. 1 industry.

“We are expecting the busiest season that Palm Beach County has ever seen,” said Bernardo Neto, general manager of The Ben, a Marriott Autograph Hotel property in West Palm Beach.

Neto is one of several hoteliers and tourism officials who were feeling reassured earlier this month that the worst effects of the coronavirus pandemic are over.

On Friday, however, the United States joined Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union in restricting travelers from multiple countries in southern Africa as the World Health Organization identified another COVID-19 mutation, the omicron variant. The announcement roiled financial markets worldwide. 

Still, local travel officials have said there are plenty of reasons to be upbeat about this winter, a time when Palm Beach County’s population typically swells with visitors and part-time residents. Among the factors they say will boost business:

  • Snowbirds who hesitated last winter to come to Florida due to high COVID infection numbers now feel comfortable visiting because infections finally have declined in the state.
  • International visitors from Canada and Europe once again are allowed to fly into the U.S. — and seek sunshine and sand in Palm Beach County.
  • The surge in migration to the county during the pandemic from residents in the Northeast, Midwest and even California means more family and friends will be coming here for the holidays.

“It’s going to be a banner season,” said Peter Ricci, director of the Hospitality and Tourism Management program at Florida Atlantic University.

Discover The Palm Beaches, the county’s tourism marketing arm, sees the increased business first hand. In October, Discover sold more than 10,000 hotel rooms to visitors planning future trips, said Jorge Pesquera, chief executive.

Destinations Analysts, a tourism research firm, reports that 45% of those surveyed had intended to travel for the holiday in 2021, compared to only 26% who traveled last Thanksgiving, when the pandemic still was raging and vaccinations weren’t yet widely available to the public.

Hotel occupancy in Palm Beach County of Thanksgiving was expected to reach approximately 65% to 69%, up from 49% in 2020 and just down from the pre-pandemic 73% in 2019.

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Palm Beach County was one of a number of Florida counties that became a go-to travel destination for people who couldn’t travel to the warmth of the Caribbean last year, especially during the holidays and throughout the winter. In fact, the 2020 fiscal year resulted in $51 million in bed taxes collected, just a notch below the prior record tourism season of 2019 when bed tax revenue hit $54 million, said Glenn Jergensen, executive director of the Tourist Development Council of Palm Beach County.

FAU’s Ricci said it’s interesting that people still want to come to Palm Beach County even though most foreign destinations finally are open for travel. Tourism leaders credit the county’s amenities and new hotels, the presence of more friends or relatives living here, and maybe the continued uncertainty of foreign travel.

Or perhaps it’s just a return to the familiar travel habits of people who regularly come to Palm Beach County to escape cold weather.

Regardless of the reason, Ricci believes high hotel occupancy rates will stay that way through the next nine months, making for a very strong winter season. Indeed, at least one luxury beachfront hotel in Palm Beach County already was at 97% occupancy in mid-November, Ricci said.

Meanwhile, in south county, hotels had filled up with Thanksgiving visitors in Boca Raton. Just to the north in Delray Beach, most hotels were already full or nearly full by early November, according to an analysis performed by Rapoport Restaurant Group. The company has restaurants in both cities.

What’s new in Palm Beach County?

Tourists coming to the county this winter will encounter several new or upgraded hotels.

In Delray Beach, new offerings include The Ray, a Curio Collection by Hilton.

The Ray features 141 guest rooms, event space, and a sweeping 22,000-square-foot rooftop bar and lounge space. The hotel is in the artsy Pineapple Grove district of downtown Delray Beach, offering a beachy vibe within an urban enclave near shops and restaurants.

Menin Development, which built The Ray, recently bought another Delray Beach hotel, Crane’s Beach House Boutique Hotel & Luxury Villas.

Meanwhile, upscale West Palm Beach hotels that opened in early 2020 finally expect to enjoy a winter season unhampered by high COVID infection rates. They are The Ben, and Hilton’s The Canopy West Palm Beach Downtown.

In addition, the former Boca Raton Resort & Club, now The Boca Raton, will open a number of rooms at its main hotel Dec. 17 following a $200 million, months-long renovation. And in February, the 140-room Banyan Cay Resort & Club, near the Palm Beach Outlets in West Palm Beach, is expected to open as a Hyatt-branded hotel.

Hoteliers say rooms are booking up fast.

The Ray already is busy with bookings, especially on weekends. As for the upcoming season, “we expect to be sold out during the upcoming holidays and be very busy all the way through the spring season,” hotel manager Delondo Lemon said.

In fact, results for this upcoming season, and through 2022, at The ray have “surpassed our expectations,” added Craig Menin, chief executive of Menin Development.

Rates vary at hotels, depending on the month, the property’s amenities and its proximity to the beach. 

At The Ray in Delray Beach, rates start in the mid-$300s per night, with winter rates ranging from $500 to $1,000, said hotel manager Delondo Lemon. At The Ben, with views of the Intracoastal Waterway along Flagler Drive in West Palm Beach, room rates this winter fluctuate between $500 and $700, which is a 15% year-over-year increase.

Even though there are more hotel rooms available in the county than ever before, the strong demand for hotel rooms is expected to keep nightly room rates high. Tourism officials say people still will pay the higher rate, especially if it’s for a place that has plenty of open space.

At Crane’s Beach House, bookings not only are strong for the winter season, there is a wait list for rooms, said Cathy Balestriere, the property’s longtime general manager. Some guests already have booked four to five months in advance, she said. This 28-suite boutique property will remain the same tropical oasis just south of Atlantic Avenue and continue to be led by Balestriere, despite recently being bought by Menin.

Guests not only are coming to the hotel, Balestriere said, they also are staying longer, booking from four to seven seven nights, rather than prior trips of up to three nights. Seasonal rates range from $350 a night to $800 or more for suites. Crane’s offers suites ranging in size from kitchenette studios, to deluxe one-bedroom suites and luxury villas.

The return of group travel 

With the majority of 2020 events canceled, hoteliers say there is pent-up demand to celebrate missed milestones, such as weddings, birthdays, bar mitzvahs and other social gatherings.

 At The Ray, outdoor spaces and a meeting space called The Cube are in demand for a number of private events, Lemon said.

“We have quite a bit of weddings, and corporate is definitely back. That type of business was not here three months ago,” The Ben’s Neto said. “People are more confident now that the number of COVID cases are down, and since we are a small hotel, we won’t do massive conferences. We’ll do for 30 or 40 or 60.”

Other hotels are filled up with guests attending events at the Palm Beach County Convention Center or business travelers from New York-based investment firms staying in town to look for homes.

In West Palm Beach, The Canopy’s 150 rooms get booked fast for events at the nearby convention center, general manager Chris Steele said.

Zoom fatigue is driving some corporate events because people want to meet in person rather than on computer calls, Pesquera said. And with COVID vaccination rates increasing weekly, meeting planners and attendees are more comfortable organizing in-person group events.

Discover The Palm Beaches is so eager to capitalize on returning group business, the organization just launched a campaign to squeeze even more business from visitors who attend events at the convention center.

The initiative, dubbed “Between the Sessions,” highlights activities convention attendees can do between or after convention events. Suggestions include playing a few rounds at the National Croquet Center, viewing collections at the Norton Museum of Art or taking a stroll along Clematis Street.

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International tourists finally allowed back

As soon as the federal government announced that vaccinated international travelers would be allowed into the country starting Nov. 8, “the number of people searching the U.S.A. as a destination skyrocketed,” FAU’s Ricci said. “We’re bound to get some internationals back. I think everybody has pent-up desire.”

Discover’s Pesquera said his group has agents at work in Europe and the United Kingdom right now.

The word from abroad?

“British tour operators say there seems to be a lot of interest in putting the Palm Beaches in their programs,” Pesquera said. Discover representatives also spent time in November in Colombia, working to encourage travel from Latin America.

The Boca Raton is doing its part to bring back European visitors, including working with Discover The Palm Beaches. The hotel’s director of sales was in London in early November in a bid to bring back travelers from the U.K., said spokeswoman Christine DiRocco.

Interest in hotel rooms is coming not only from the United Kingdom and Europe, Middle East markets also are perking up, DiRocco aid. There is particular interest in early 2022 winter bookings as well as travel during Easter and Passover.

Even restaurant owners are bullish

Restaurateurs suffered through a complete shutdown during the height of the pandemic and then saw an unprecedented wave of diners flocking back to restaurants once vaccinations rolled out.

“I think it’s going to the best ever. People want to spend money. It’s going to be busy,” said Burt Rapoport, who owns six restaurants in Palm Beach County.

Rapoport said 2020 was a strong year for his Rapoport Restaurant Group — which includes Max’s Grille and Burt & Max’s — despite the coronavirus pandemic. With the migration of even more people to South Florida, he expects a new influx of people also dining out frequently, too.

“It’s going to be an excellent season,” agreed Todd Herbst, owner of West Palm Beach-based Big Time Restaurant Group, parent to Elisabetta’s, Rocco’s Tacos, City Oyster and other eateries.

“This isn’t just internal optimism,” Herbst said. “We’re already coming off a really good summer and a pretty darn good fall, and we’re seeing where our bookings for private parties are. I’m very optimistic it will be a very strong season, barring any kind of disaster.”

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Is tourism boom sustainable?

Ricci, at FAU, says it’s understandable tourism businesses would seek to recover some of the losses from the pandemic business shutdown. But he is skeptical the high prices being charged are sustainable without a commensurate delivery of service and a matching visitor experience.

Ricci said he is seeing restaurants, hotels, airlines and others “charging rates that are not normal for fall season.” At the same time, he said, Ricci said those same businesses — particularly restaurants and hotels — are having to make do  with reduced staffing, either because they are trying to make up losses with cost savings or because workers are not to be found.

“People are paying very high rates and they are dealing with, in the average, lower-quality service because of the lack of staff,” Ricci said. “This can’t go on forever without people stepping up and saying ‘I’ve had enough.'”

To attract those critical front-line workers critical needed to provide red carpet and white glove service, Ricci said industry salaries and wage increases have markedly risen. But, still, he said tourism operators appear to be “down to 10-to-40% in staffing across the board” as industry management looks to cut back on labor costs in other areas.

To cover some of the higher employment costs, Ricci said, he has also heard from hotel owners saying they are postponing property improvements. But the key area for cost-saving has been reductions in labor positions, which risks stressing department managers and employees toiling in backroom jobs who may not be getting pay increases while taking on extra work as openings in those fields go unfilled.

“Their stress level is up,” Ricci said. “I hear it in their tone, I hear it in their voice. I sense it through their emails. I think we are going to burn out (the) department head, the director of sales, director of catering, general managers, etc.”

Over time, Ricci said, relief will come in the from of artificial intelligence and use of robotics for some services. For example, he points to a guest services app called Ivy that performs the functions of a concierge. There are also algorithms, now used by cruise lines, that better target marketing programs and sales pitches to specific population demographics.

Whatever the solutions are, Ricci said, it is a long-term recovery process, especially in the labor column. “I bet we’ll see the ‘Please be nice, we’re short-staffed’ signs for a decade,” he said.

But overall, the prospects for this winter season and into the spring look rosy.

“I’ve just been hearing good things,” he said. “I have yet to hear someone say they are worried about this season.”

Follow Alexandra Clough on Twitter: @acloughpbp.

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