How Now, Pow Wow?

Miami rolled out the red carpet for visiting travel honchos. They ate, they drank, they went back home.

During Pow Wow, the May 21-25 international tourist trade show sponsored by the Travel Industry Association of America, Miami wasn't taking any chances. Especially with Germans. When Frankfurt tour operator Doris Treffkon got off the plane at the start of the convention, she was met by two security guards. One took her bags while another guided her to the charter bus to whisk her in air-conditioned safety to her hotel. "I was very happy about it," she said later. "It was a long way from the concourse."

Not everyone got two free bodyguards, but all of the 5000 attendees at the event, held at the Miami Beach Convention Center A buyers and sellers of vacation services, plus several hundred journalists (most of the latter affiliated with trade publications) A were treated to an enviable level of service and security. Haunted by images of lost and dead tourists, and the more recent hijacking of a hotel courtesy bus, Miami area tourism officials made sure the incoming visitors were greeted by volunteers with a friendly version of military-style precision. The welcoming crew then guided them to the baggage-claim area and hotel-bound buses.

Those who didn't follow the script made their guardians a bit nervous. Jean-Marc Michaud, a Montreal tour operator who has been coming to Miami for years, declined to ride a bus, opting to rent a car instead. His brave determination worried the volunteer greeter who hovered near him. "She got scared," Michaud recalled with some amusement.

She had good reason to be concerned: If anything bad happened to Michaud, the $14 billion Miami tourist industry might be ruined.

If last fall's killings were the local equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill, any major crimes against Pow Wow-ers would have been the tourism version of Chernobyl. There was an undercurrent of nervous anticipation throughout the opening weekend, hidden behind the well-trained smiles that were presented to the VIP guests. Fortunately, nothing did happen to any of the conventioneers. And as for Michaud, he managed to find his way to Ocean Drive, where he was later spotted dining happily on free snapper at A Fish Called Avalon during the glitzy Monday-night Pow Wow bash.

Greater Miami and the Beaches, as tourist executives call it, stood to gain from Pow Wow approximately $200 million in bookings over the next year or so. That would be ten percent of the two billion dollars in tourist business sold during the annual convention. The long-term benefit of making a positive impact on the 1600 vacation packagers visiting from nearly 70 nations was potentially far more enormous, so it was important to dazzle them with Miami's charms. One method was to take them to South Florida's most fabled tourist destinations. These were a jaded bunch, though, and winning them over wasn't easy.

Well before noon on Saturday, the convention's first day, hundreds of vacation-industry entrepreneurs lined up for one of several trips: airboat riding in the Everglades, eating Cuban food in Little Havana, cruising on a boat around Miami, shopping in Bal Harbour, even snorkeling in Biscayne National Park. About 65 people decided to take a boat from Bayside and view some city highlights.

Getting there was only half the fun.
The gaudily painted double-decker bus provided for the trip to Bayside had one major flaw: no amenities. The door was kept open because the air conditioning was on the fritz. The volunteer guide could barely be heard, owing to the lack of a functioning sound system. And the bus groaned and rattled with age as it inched its way slowly across the MacArthur Causeway under the hot sun. But when part of the interior trim fell off in the rear of the bus, everyone took it in stride. "This bus is about to crack in half," quipped a Canadian executive. "One half goes, the other half stays."

Despite the efforts at upbeat patter by the ship's "captain," the boat ride itself stirred little interest, save the free lunch. The highlight of the tour was the announcement, "This house belongs to Barry Gibb!"

Wolfram Koch, a thin, bearded representative of the German firm Pfeifer Touristic, glanced lazily at the islands drifting past and waxed philosophical about the impact of crime on German attitudes. "For the general public, you shoot one tourist, no problem. You shoot a second, no problem. But you kill a third one," he observed, "and you have a problem. You could kill a whole bus filled with 53 Germans, it's not a problem. People have short memories." It was the fact that there had been repeated incidents, he stressed, that created the bad impressions overseas.

Koch's firm, which specializes in customized trips for upscale tourists, was putting an even greater emphasis on vacations to West Canada and Alaska. But he liked Miami and was looking for ways to offer something unique for Florida visitors. "You have nice beaches and fine hotels, but what is really so special about a beach?" he asked.

On the hot bus ride back to the convention center, tempers were slightly frayed. Some of the tour operators stared morosely at volunteer Claudia Castillo as she gamely pointed out a few sites. "This here is Biscayne Boulevard," she said, then paused. "There's a lot of traffic on weekdays." As the bus lurched to a stop to let a few people off at the Biscayne Bay Marriott, one Brazilian tourist executive exploded, "This is ridiculous!" Others snapped, "Take us back to the convention center, please!" The guide lapsed into defeated silence for the rest of the ride.

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