Miami Beach's innovative step to restore tourism vitality
By Michael Lewis
Some of us aren't just sitting as the recession steamrolls through. They're fighting back.
One recession-buster comes from our visitor industry's hub, Miami Beach. Don't say nothing is new under the sun. It is on the Beach.
Surprisingly, innovations come from the Mayor's Blue Ribbon Task Force on Tourism. Such studies usually gather dust, but this team's 28-page April plan is already in action.
Not a moment too soon. Hard-nosed taskforce Chairman Stuart Blumberg, who heads the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association, says this winter is the worst in his 54 years in the industry, with bed tax revenues off more than 20%, boat show traffic down nearly a third and hotel occupancy propped up only by big discounts.
Remember, the visitor industry is not just any slice of our economy. It's one of the largest, and its impact spreads countywide.
In fact, 9.6% of Miami-Dade's 1.092 million workers last month held one of the industry's 105,300 jobs. That's a lot, but down 3,100 from just 12 months earlier, when the sector hit 108,400, its all-time high.
For perspective, no one local layoff approached 3,100. That's how important the visitor industry's lost jobs are to us all — and how vital it is to grow them back.
That hits home in Miami Beach and was the impetus for the taskforce. It notes that "in 2001, 71% of [county] visitors came to South Beach; now, the number is 53%. In 2001, 70% of visitors went to the beach, now the number is 51%. In 2001, 10% of the visitors went to the museums on Miami Beach. Now, the number is 2%. We need to reverse the loss now."
So, what did the team do that's remarkable?
First, it found creative ways to grow without asking cash-strapped governments for handouts. That eliminates red tape.
Second, it figured out how to help the whole county while aiding Miami Beach, rather than erecting barriers to keep anyone else out of the cookie jar. It relies on cooperation, not competition.
Third, plans are long term, both to escape bad times and to profit in good ones. The package of long-run solutions makes future lemonade from today's lemons.
And what creative solutions enhance this broad plan?
You've got to like a value agreement that would make booking future conventions the key to savings now. Group members would get discounts at participating hotels months and years before their meetings and after, and on the mainland as well as in Miami Beach.
Making conventioneers special members of our family will bring more prior visits, more after visits, larger conventions and more convention bookings. Mr. Blumberg doesn't know of any other city that has tried this.
Innovation to add convention business is more vital than ever because the city added vast numbers of hotel rooms when the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc reopened.
But when this gambit succeeds, we'll need more than ever a convention center upgrade, a hot issue the team's report bypasses. We can no longer ignore this need — it's vital in a recession, more so in good times.
A key aim is to use our airport and seaport to capture people who now just pass through in transit. That's long been a goal, but the team targets specific steps.
One is to convert routine public address announcements from annoying orders into warm welcomes that urge visitors to take part in what our county offers.
Another is to create shuttles from the ports to local destinations to capture visitors between planes or awaiting ship boardings. That risks a late shuttle that causes passengers to miss connections. But run well, a shuttle can turn millions of pass-through passengers a year into tourists, diners, shoppers and return guests.
A third airport program: an information hub that can repay costs rapidly as staffers guide visitors to stores, hotels and restaurants countywide.
The team sees the welcome center oriented far differently from past targets: "Focus on China, India, Japan. These and other Asian commercial flights will link to Central and South America for trade and leisure travel." The team also sees targeting visitors from Ireland via Aer Lingus.
An information hub isn't innovative elsewhere. How long can we fail to do what almost every city does: offer convenient information from helpful human beings?
The taskforce plans a Lincoln Road cultural information hub too in a gilded box office that's now in front of the Wolfsonian Museum. The team notes that of 12 million visitors who pass through Miami Beach yearly, only 20,000 to 40,000 enter each Beach museum.
The plan envisions using free ad space at the ports to promote attractions and the destination as a whole.
In a way once unthinkable in Miami Beach, it also envisions a dining around program in a different area of the county monthly, Miami Beach restaurants one month, then Coconut Grove, and so on, to spur more resident dining. This might not add dollars to the county, but it would bolster the industry.
The team also seeks a permanent wine academy in Miami Beach, working with a wine magazine and Florida International University's School of Hospitality and Tourism Management.
The taskforce values hard facts, seeking stronger market analysis and forecasting and to "share authentic data," replacing seat-of-the-pants estimates. And it calls for focus groups to gather opinions of our residents as well.
There's much in this plan to like, though new service goals would help. Visitors seldom recall routine service, but they'll go home and tell everyone about great service — or terrible service. Too many visitor industry workers here still act like they're just on the job for the day rather than for a career.
The taskforce promises to stay together, becoming a mayor's tourism advisory council to monitor progress. That should insure that this month's promises aren't next year's forgotten programs.
In a recession, as jobs shrink and hotels and restaurants gasp for air, everyone suddenly sees the value of our hospitality sector and pitches in. When good times return, as they certainly will, we cannot let that slip away.