One year later, Florida hotels take stock of Hurricane Irma's effects

According to Visit Florida, 2017's Hurricane Irma cost the state approximately 1.8 million visitors and a loss of $1.5 billion in visitor spending. And while the Sunshine State has bounced back in the past year, the storm was a sobering reminder of the damage nature can wreak on visitor destinations—and of the steps hoteliers must take to prepare for the next hurricane.

An initial analysis by STR found that most waterfront tourism destinations in the state saw “dramatic” performance declines during the days before the hurricane hit the state on Sept. 10. (While Orlando is landlocked and was spared the brunt of the storm, Disney World still had to close its doors for two days.)

About a month after the hurricane hit, Hersha Hospitality detailed the expected impact from Hurricane Irma on its six South Florida hotels. The Blue Moon and Winter Haven both reported minimal damage and partially reopened on Sept. 13. The Residence Inn Coconut Grove experienced some landscaping and signage damage and partially reopened on Sept. 17, while the Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove reported similar damage and partially reopened on Sept. 22, according to RW Baird. Parrot Key, meanwhile, experienced enough water penetration that it is scheduled to reopen this fall. The converted Cadillac Miami Beach (formerly a Courtyard by Marriott) is scheduled to reopen as an Autograph Collection hotel in late summer. “These hotels will open into a very strong market in the coming quarters, and the enhanced quality of both hotels will drive strong returns on these long-term investments,” said Hersha Hospitality Trust President and COO Neil H. Shah during the real estate investment trust's most recent earnings call.

Irma in Naples

When Irma hit Naples, Fla., it hit directly rather than brushing by the coastline, said Jason Parsons, GM of the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club. “We didn't get a massive storm surge,” he said. “The winds were intense, but the water wasn’t. For having that large of a storm hit, it was the best-case scenario.”

Even in a best-case scenario, an ounce of prevention becomes vitally important in a storm, and the hotel team raced to prepare for the wind and the rain. “We have a pretty elaborate plan that goes into motion as soon as there’s any indication of a tropical storm or hurricane or any weather event,” Parsons said. “We’re right on the water, so there's a lot of work to be done.” Everything outside was moved inside, including potted plants, chairs, trash cans, pool furniture—“anything that can fly.” For a Florida hotel that encourages guests to unwind outdoors, this took a lot of time—and the property still had guests in five rooms right until the evacuation order went into effect.

Staff and guests evacuated the hotel, and the property’s team returned the day after the storm passed to take stock of what awaited them. Two of the six guestroom buildings had been damaged and the meeting venue had some minor roof damage. There was water in the spa, but for the most part, the majority of the damage was to the drywall, the paint, the carpeting and some of the furniture. “The place was messy,” Parsons said. For a week and a half, 65 employees stayed on property (with their families) and cleaned nonstop, fixing anything inside that looked like it had gotten wet during the storm. “You don’t want to take any chances with mold or mildew,” he said.  

In total, the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club was closed for two weeks, but it was able to reopen sooner than other properties along the coast. While occupancy plummeted for the entire month of September, the hotel did attract some business that would have gone to shuttered hotels—but not enough to make up for the lost month of revenue. “The only good news was that September is typically one of the softest months of the year for business anyway in Southwest Florida,” Parsons said. “If it happened in March, we’d be in trouble.” By Christmas, all of the damage had been repaired, all guest spaces were open again and everything was back to normal. In hindsight, Parsons only wishes that he had started moving all of the outdoor equipment inside sooner. “Those last three days before we closed were grueling,” he said.

Not all hotels in the area evacuated, however, leaving teams with the dual challenge of keeping guests both safe and comfortable. In Naples’ downtown area, several blocks away from the beach, the Inn on 5th had closed its main building for repairs just days before the storm hit. That meant only guests in the property’s 18 Club Level Suites building on the other side of 5th Avenue were affected—but the hotel team still had to take steps to prepare for the storm.

“It wasn't as much as if we were expecting a full house and operating, but you always take measures,” said Cathy Christopher, director of sales and marketing at the Inn on 5th. “You want to make sure that all your gutters are clear, all your drainage systems have been emptied and are free of debris because you want that water to process very quickly,” she said. The hotel had a crew putting sandbags in place three days before the storm hit, and the team brought in extra food and water to make sure no one on property went hungry. “We went to a hardware store and we bought all the tape they had and we went to every single room in the hotel—the main building as well,” Christopher recalled. “Even though the hotel was closed, we still have to protect our assets, so about four of us went into every room and taped around every door the whole way around. We taped up every window, every sliding door to keep the water out and as I was doing it, I was saying, ‘This isn't going to work. How is this going to keep out that kind of wind and rain?’ But it did.”

Perhaps most importantly, the hotel team kept guests informed with the latest information about the storm and what they could expect. “We posted signs by the hour about where they could get food,” Christopher said. “We prepared a hurricane emergency list that I got to every guest, telling them what to do.” The hotel team established a centralized communication system with emergency radios. Christopher and general manager Phil McCabe both moved into the hotel in order to keep an eye on everything.

Ultimately, the Club Level Suites lost power for all of 15 minutes before the generator kicked in, and while the air conditioning didn’t work, guests were not left in the dark. The buildings across the street—where the main hotel was already closed for renovations—did lose power for two weeks, so the hotel team raided the kitchens at Ocean Prime and Truluck's, setting up an ad hoc barbecue to use up the seafood before it spoiled in the summer heat. “The worst damage that Irma did to us was delay our renovation of the main building,” Christopher said, noting that the Club Level Suites were built in 2012 and were up to code for a Category 5 hurricane. “There was zero structural damage to either of our buildings.” Still, just to be safe for next time, the hotel team has increased the capacity of the generators and reinforced all of the windows.

One Year Later

While Irma caused significant damage to residential and commercial property alike, it did not cause long-term harm to the state’s tourism sector. By the end of the year, the state saw a record 116.5 million visitors travel to Florida for 2017, an increase of 3.6 percent over 2016.

The good news continued, and in June, Gov. Rick Scott reported that Florida had 33.2 million visitors in the first quarter of 2018, an increase of 7.4 percent over the same period in 2017 and the largest quarter for visitation in Florida history. Of those 33.2 million, 29.1 were domestic, an 8.5-percent increase in domestic visitors over the same period last year.