News Column

Holiday Weekend Crowds Way Down in Miami Beach

May 27, 2013

For years, Miami Beach has been the place for Memorial Day weekend revelers, with hot acts, sold-out hotels and can't-miss parties that cater to African-American crowds.

Just two years ago, hotel occupancy averaged more than 85 percent over the weekend with daily rates about $260 -- far higher than the month's average of 74.4 percent occupancy at $195 a night and the holiday weekend's highest numbers in years.

But after police fatally shot a man and wounded four bystanders in 2011, the city's police department last year enacted a host of new security measures including highway checkpoints, roadblocks and surveillance cameras.

The measures appeared to have worked in 2012: The weekend was relatively uneventful on the beach.

But business dropped significantly. According to figures from Smith Travel Research, hotels were just under 75 percent full at about the same rates, only two percentage points higher than the May average for Miami Beach.

This year, hoteliers generally report that they expect slightly higher business than last year, according to a survey by the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. But that's still a far cry from the past; even in the depths of the downturn in 2009, hotels were 82 percent full, though at lower rates.

The Clevelander, an Ocean Drive hotel, restaurant and bar -- and a consistent South Beach party spot -- has seen business drop since 2011 and expects flat year-over-year performance this year.

"We can't quite pinpoint the reasons why, but we're thinking it's more of a local crowd that comes in to be on the beach and experience food and beverage and less of a traveling crowd," said Anna Whitlow, marketing manager for the property. That doesn't necessarily translate into a bonanza for the restaurant and bar.

"We don't see that it's one of the weekends like a BCS Championship weekend or a Super Bowl weekend or times during Winter Music Conference or Ultra where we see a great increase in business," she said. "It's not like we're dead, but we aren't thriving as much as we would have on a weekend when there's more of an organized activity."

Also referred to as Urban Beach Week, the holiday weekend is known for its scattershot collection of parties at nightclubs and other venues. Unlike many major tourism drivers that receive grant money from the Miami Beach Visitor & Convention Authority, no organizers have even applied for funding to support events.

While big names are still associated with the South Beach-centered festivities -- think Rick Ross, Diddy, Juelz Santana and Busta Rhymes -- other events are drawing visitors away from the beach. Sizzle, a gay urban gathering held through Monday, has most of its parties in Downtown Miami. The Best of the Best Concert, featuring more than 15 reggae, dancehall and soca performers, is Sunday at Bayfront Park -- with an after party in Pembroke Pines.

Darryl Payne, a New York radio disc jockey who goes by DJ Delife, said options outside South Beach have breathed new life into the weekend. He will attend Best of the Best and spin afterwards at Cafe Iguana Pines, where he also planned to DJ Friday night.

"It gave people an alternative," he said of the Miami event. "You don't have to go to South Beach. You can go to the concert."

Despite the recent decline, some Miami Beach retailers said they expect plenty of business this weekend.

Anthony R. Marotta, president and co-owner of exotic car rental company Carefree Lifestyle, said that even though he believes the crowds are spreading out to other locations, he expects to sell out his stock of 40 rental Ferraris, Bentleys and other luxury vehicles.

"I think it's scaled down, but in our industry, we don't need to fill 800 rooms," he said.

The Catalina Hotel & Beach Club, which is well known for its party atmosphere, expects plenty of action for the weekend, said owner Nathan Lieberman.

"Everyone's coming to party, they're spending money, the bars will definitely be busy," he said.

That's what British tourists Natalie Lock and Charlotte Egan, both 22, have been saving up for since November.

Walking down Ocean Drive on Thursday, the friends from Bristol said they were aware the weekend had a bad reputation.

"But a lot of people said 'You have to experience it,' so we came," Lock said.

In addition to club-hopping, Lock and Egan said their visit until late next week includes plans to tour the city and soak up one of South Beach's top assets.

"We came for Memorial weekend and for the sun," Lock said.

High-profile Miami-based DJ Irie, whose given name is Ian Grocher, said he believes that mix will keep Miami Beach a top Memorial Day destination.

"I do think it will last because there really isn't anywhere else, at least not in the country, which can offer the same kind of entertainment value for the weekend like Miami," he said. "You have daytime and nighttime all in the same area. You have the parties during the day and at night, between Washington and Collins, you're good, you can experience as much parties as you can handle. I feel like it will sustain as long as the programming stays consistent."

Source: Copyright Miami Herald (FL) 2013 Distributed by MCT Information Services

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