How Now, Pow Wow?
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.
But the bus fiasco was the exception in a weekend of swank events and friendly -- indeed, sycophantic -- service. All told, local governments and corporate sponsors spent about $2.5 million on Pow Wow, according to Don Lefton, co-owner of two Miami hotels, the Grand Bay Hotel and the Sheraton River House, and chairman of the host committee. It showed.
At the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Saturday night the tourism bigwigs were treated like conquering heroes as they entered between an honor guard of applauding, smiling volunteers. Once inside they were free to roam between two floors dedicated to South Florida, filled with fake sealife and sculptures of fruits. A "citrus fantasy room" included a few people in oversized fruit costumes hired to dance around to a salsa beat while guests stuffed themselves with free food and drink (alligator meat included). The concert performance by pop singer Jon Secada later that night was well received, except among older tourist officials, who left with their hands over their ears as the homogenized rock blared.
On Sunday a busload of guests on a trip to the Everglades learned far more about Florida's environment than they may have expected, as Holland-born guide Astrid Wilbrink offered a detailed, impassioned lecture regarding the dangers posed to the Everglades.
Pointing to maps of Florida and the Everglades displayed at the front of the bus, Wilbrink declared, "We started sugar plantations and cattle farming that dried up the water. Some of the chemicals in the water kill all the life in Lake Okeechobee.
And when Lake Okeechobee is dead, the Everglades is going to die, too." As the bus trundled past the fast-food outlets and strip malls along the Tamiami Trail, Wilbrink warned darkly, "The whole ecological balance is gone. When we built this road in the 1950s, we weren't thinking about nature." She did, however, briefly downplay the bleakness by noting plans to restore the wetlands. "We're working on it," she said.
Then she moved on to other natural calamities: "We run the risk of hurricanes every year. September is the hurricane month."
For some, the revelation that the bus was headed out to the Miccosukee Indian reservation, rather than a more pristine setting, came as a disappointment. "I was hoping to see a bit more wildlife," complained Andy Lovering, a representative of England's Fred Olsen Travel Ltd.
As the bus moved closer to the reservation and real wetlands, Wilbrink urged riders to keep their eyes peeled for alligators and other species. No one saw anything, though, not even Lovering.
The first live alligator he saw was at the Miccosukee Indian Village, where Bo, a muscular Native American in a yellow T-shirt, gave a "wrestling" exhibition. After using a stick to prod a few reptiles that were sleepily minding their own business in a manmade pit, Bo grabbed one gator by its tail and hove it onto an artificial sand-covered bank, then began performing various stunts with the hapless beast: clamping its mouth shut with his hands, opening the jaws wide to display its fearsome teeth, wrestling the alligator onto its back and rubbing it until it "fell asleep."
Andy Lovering looked on with chilly distaste. "This is not my thing," he said. "I'm into photographing wildlife. Personally, I find this disheartening."
At the reservation shop, Lovering attempted to console himself with a picture book called Everglades: The Story Behind the Scenery. He leafed forlornly through the color photographs of all the animals he hadn't been able to see in their natural setting. Despite his frustration, he, like many of the people on the trip, said he enjoyed learning about the Miccosukee history and spiritual perspective, as presented in a guided tour and brief lectures. (Even here, though, commerce intruded, when the reservation's public relations director, Steven Tiger, ended his talk by saying, "Send people back here. We need tourism in Miami -- and it's not as bad as people say we are, right?")
Lovering also liked the brief airboat ride that followed, a noisy glide over the wetlands A until the craft stopped at a tiny encampment that featured caged turtles and alligators. "Great," he said bitterly. "Another shop." He finally did get to take some photographs of tiny alligators at play in a muddy stream, before riding the airboat back to the dock and silently boarding the bus for the return trip to the convention center.
Party fever gripped the visitors on Sunday night when they were treated to an elaborate celebration at the Port of Miami aboard two cruise ships, Carnival Cruise Lines's Ecstasy and Royal Caribbean's Majesty of the Seas. Guests were greeted by actors dressed up as Carmen Miranda and Uncle Sam (on stilts!), then walked up a red carpet to enter one of the two boats. Those boarding the Ecstasy found themselves in a gaudy Vegas-style resort, with enough flashing lights and neon to convince a hard-drinking party-goer that he had stumbled into a gigantic pinball machine. After an elegant meal of snapper and beef Wellington, the visitors were entertained by tuxedoed waiters who danced down the dining-room aisles, boogying to Latin rhythms. All the while they balanced on their heads trays bearing candles.
Afterward, while the conventioneers lurched from one bar to another on the enormous ship, some hoped out loud that the festivities would indeed revive Miami's appeal. Wolfgang Wekwert, a Hamburg tour operator, said, "We don't want to lose this destination." In his view, "all the problems were created by the press." Others were simply too dazzled by the sensory overload -- or perhaps the free-flowing booze -- to do anything but smile.
All the sightseeing and parties may have won some new converts to the glories of Miami, but amid the schmoozing and negotiating on the convention center floor, the lingering concern over Miami's crime problem was revived -- as a bargaining chip.
Hoteliers, such as Victor Farkas, whose Thunderbird Resort in Sunny Isles depends strongly on European visitors, found themselves giving away more discounts than they might have preferred.
Farkas, who owns two other small hotels as well, allowed as how he had to take special measures to reassure his guests. "I've cut out Channel 7 on the TVs in my rooms," he said. "The guests were scared shitless and they were afraid to come out of the room."
One of Farkas's first meetings at his booth was with Hank Jansen, managing director of the Special Traffic tour firm of the Netherlands. Jansen, a heavyset man with a deep, growling voice, opened with a predictable, effective gambit by underscoring the continuing worries about Miami. "They're afraid to come here," he reported with an air of regret.
"What can we do to change their minds?" asked Farkas, an amiable Hungarian-born dealmaker who seemed to enjoy the give-and-take.
"You can't do anything about it because of the newspapers," Jansen replied, then added, "That's the reason we can negotiate now."
He looked over a sheet of hotel rates that Farkas handed him. "These rates are not good," he mused. "So I'm ready to decrease rates. I'll make a nice deal."
Jansen commenced to set his trap. "So, to start with, what's your very low, low, low season that you need business?"
Farkas said, "The first three weeks in the summer."
Jansen leaned forward. "So give me a special offer."
Farkas said, "I'll give you two weeks for the price of one. I don't put this down for everybody." Then they talked about winter rates, with Farkas offering some weeks in January with extra nights thrown in for free.
"What else?" Jansen pressed.
Farkas reluctantly added some free extra nights for early December and March bookings. "You've taken the cream and the milk and everything else," he complained, but further sweetened the deal by knocking off a few dollars from the wholesale room rates. "Next year," he concluded optimistically, "we'll have a better year."
After the men shook hands, Jansen said, "I'm going to tell everyone here"
"Athat Farkas is giving away the property," the hotelier interrupted him.
German tour operators seemed especially willing to play on the decline of that country's once-thriving market in Miami. For the 1993-94 season, from September through February, German visits to Dade County fell from the previous season by twenty-one percent, according to figures released by the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, although total tourism climbed by five percent during the same period. Peter Mller, the distinguished-looking, gray-haired manager of Aeroworld, brought a lot of clout to his discussions: His firm, he said, brings about 100,000 people per year to the U.S., including 20,000 through Miami International Airport. In his meetings with Florida hoteliers, he emphasized with a seemingly sincere sadness just how difficult it will be to change German perceptions.
"We have lost the first-time visitor who is afraid to come here," he mournfully intoned to Michael Kairalla, director of tour and travel for the Radisson Suite Beach Resort on Marco Island. To remind the hotel spokesman that even his bucolic island was affected, Mller added, "When anything happens, people combine Miami and all of Florida in their minds. It takes time for people to forget."
At his next stop he met with a sales rep from the Miami Airport Hilton, whose courtesy bus was hijacked earlier in the month. "What can we do to capture volume?" asked Beatriz Kasusky.
"People are afraid," Mller said gravely. "The best thing to do is wait."
"When people hear the word 'airport hotel,' they get a little bit concerned, especially coming from Europe," Kasusky noted with remorse. "But we're more like a resort-type hotel near the airport. Talking about safety...."
"You mean the bus?" Mller put in.
Kasusky laughed nervously. "That was just something [that happens once] in ten years. Was [the story] also in Germany?" she asked with some trepidation.
"Yes, it comes through very fast. But no one knows what hotel it was."
"They didn't say?" she inquired, a bit relieved.
"But I know," Mller laughed. He left with a contract for his home office to review.
By Monday night when Ocean Drive was cordoned off and transformed for a gala private party for Pow Wow it seemed that a year's hard work to redeem Miami's name finally had paid off. Thousands of happy revelers danced to rock and Latin rhythms in open-air tents, drank unlimited amounts of liquor, and scarfed down specially prepared free meals at fifteen Ocean Drive restaurants. Sitting outside the Colony Bistro, wearing one of the straw cowboy hats given out by volunteers, Jos Beltman, a tour operator from the Netherlands, declared, "It's great! I'd recommend this area, especially South Beach." He leered at one of the hired bikini-clad Rollerbladers who whizzed by.
For that one night an idealized version of Ocean Drive was presented for the tourist industry's consumption. It was all Art Deco and good food and hunks and babes, unsullied by surly teenagers or unsophisticated suburbanites. Even some of the volleyball players on the beach were hired muscleboys.
This was South Beach as theme park, SoBe World, sanitized for tourists. And it played very well. It might also have been the last tribute to a South Beach that could soon disappear -- and a foretaste of the future. A short way down the street in South Pointe is the land earmarked for a proposed hotel-casino complex that threatens Ocean Drive's Art Deco charm. The chief organizer of the Monday party, hotel mogul Tony Goldman, is well aware of the dangers: "The flavor of a megaresort facility is completely contrary to the values of what South Beach is all about." With a massive crush of gamblers the beachfront strip is likely to become just an isolated bubble, a quaint little open-air mall of hipness, perfectly preserved, and utterly lifeless.
For now, though, tourism chieftains had good reason to feel proud of their handiwork. Mayco Villafa*a, communications director of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, was probably right when he observed, "Pow Wow was an excellent vehicle to showcase the city and diminish the negative perceptions among those representing the tourism industry." Nonetheless in some markets those perceptions will still remain strong for a while longer, no matter how successful Pow Wow was. As Lisa Paul, director of long-haul travel for Germany's automobile club, ADAC, noted on the convention floor, "Even if we can get a room for $20, there's no demand for Miami.
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