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Recovering from Hurricane Damage

The four hurricanes that tore through Florida and the Caribbean last fall left many hotels and resorts with a daunting schedule of repairs and recovery efforts. But while roofs can be replaced and beaches resanded, there's one type of damage that's hard to fix: the psychological impact of a disaster on potential visitors.

Three days after the last of the storms passed through Florida, a survey found that 5 percent of travelers with plans to visit the state had canceled them. Even worse, 20 percent of respondents said they were less likely to visit Florida by the end of 2004, and a similar portion said they were less likely to visit between July and September 2005.

But such wariness will likely evaporate as the weather turns gray and cold in other parts of the country, says Peter Yesawich, chairman of Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell, the Orlando-based marketing firm that conducted the survey. "Memories fade very quickly," he notes. He estimates that only 5 percent of vacationers will avoid Florida and the Caribbean on a long-term basis because of hurricane concerns.

Tourism officials in these regions aren't taking anything for granted, however. In Florida, state and local marketers are rolling out TV, radio, and newspaper advertisements and conducting media tours for the trade and consumer press that aim to correct the misconception that the whole region was left a shambles. They're also releasingimages, including footage that illustrates the lack of damage to certain areas, as well as links to Web cams, so people can judge beach conditions for themselves. "In three-quarters of the state you'd never know there were hurricanes," says Vanessa Welter, director of public relations for Visit Florida.

In the West Indies, successive hurricanes damaged the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, Grenada, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Haiti. The Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) is working on promotions featuring celebrities, to let people know the islands are open for business. Individual countries have also developed their own ad campaigns, says Hugh Riley, CTO's director of marketing for the Americas.

A few days after the storms passed, it was business as usual at many hotels in both Florida and the Caribbean. Hotels that suffered more extensive damage, however, such as the Hyatt Regency on Grand Cayman Island, were closed for renovations and planned to reopen in time for Christmas. Even though not one window broke at the brand-new Ritz-Carlton (also on Grand Cayman), its opening was pushed back from December to sometime this spring.

The Old Bahama Bay Resort, a 55-suite property located on the western tip of Grand Bahama Island, was pummeled first by Frances and then by Jeanne. The resort closed in order to repair its roof and furnishings and replant vegetation. Until it reopens in February, Allen Ten Broek, president of the company that operates the property, is sending former guests regular e-mails on the status of repairs.

Although many resorts say they don't plan to offer discounts to attract travelers this season, there are already a few deals. For example, though Grand Cayman was still closed to tourism at press time, its sister islands of Little Cayman and Cayman Brac are offering a package through the end of February that includes four nights for the price of three at any of nine resorts. And what if the tourists don't return en masse this winter as predicted?Says Yesawich: "If hotel and resort bookings are weak, you'll see promotional pricing in a heartbeat."

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