Tourism officials throughout the Florida Keys are optimistic about the Labor Day holiday weekend, which comes a week after they asked visitors to leave the island chain as a precaution against Tropical Storm Isaac.
"I think the Tourist Development Council did a great job getting the message out that we really didn't have any damage down here from Isaac, and it looks like it should be a good long weekend for us," said Jodi Weinhofer, president of the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys Key West. "Not everyone, but some visitors were able to change their hotel reservations from last weekend to this weekend."
She said she won't have the official lodging occupancy figures until after the weekend, but anecdotally, "I think things are looking good," she said.
Key West BrewFest, sponsored this weekend by the Key West Sunrise Rotary, is growing in popularity and becoming its own draw as a summertime event, Weinhofer said, adding that any event or festival that occurs during these typically slow summertime months provides a welcome boost of visitors.
In addition, a free-admission offer for more than a dozen Florida Keys museums and attractions has been extended to include this weekend, according to WLRN, South Florida's National Public Radio network, which partnered with the Monroe County TDC to offer free or value-added admission passes to 13 attractions.
The free or discounted weekend was initially slated for Aug. 24-26, but Tropical Storm Isaac prompted its postponement.
The initiative provides a cultural pass for South Florida residents and visitors to discover the Keys by offering admission incentives, according the WLRN website. Offers now are good through Monday and participants may visit WLRN.org to print out passes for attractions that include the History of Diving Museum in Islamorada, Crane Point Museum Nature Center in Marathon and several Key West attractions such as the Key West Aquarium, Truman Little White House, Key West Garden Club, Oldest House Museum and the Key West Museum of Art History at the Custom House.
TDC Director Harold Wheeler pointed out that the annual Womenfest Key West starts Tuesday and will keep some of the holiday weekend crowds in town throughout the week.
"We've got strong bookings for this weekend," Wheeler said. "And it should stay that way throughout the week with Womenfest starting right after Labor Day. These summertime events really help us, as we're currently right in the slowest time of the year."
That said, last weekend also looked strong for tourism -- until an uninvited guest named Isaac threatened to crash the party.
Businesses are recovering from the mass exodus that took place when storm forecasters were predicting Isaac might slam into the Keys as a Category 1 hurricane. The Keys experienced only tropical storm winds and minimal damage, with only a few, sporadic power outages Keyswide.
"On average, it takes visitors about five days to start returning after we've asked them to leave for a storm," Wheeler said.
Although officials never ordered a mandatory tourist evacuation for Isaac, visitors were strongly encouraged to leave the islands if they had the means.
"Most of our visitors in the summertime are from the drive-down markets elsewhere in Florida, so most of those people wanted to get home to their own properties to start preparing for Isaac," Wheeler said. "Others were international visitors who really couldn't leave."
John Barba, who owns Vito's Pizzeria at 1019 White St., said he "would have been busy all this past week," but had to close up shop Wednesday and Thursday so a crane could remove a downed tree from the restaurant property.
"I had to turn people away to get that tree out of here," he said, also optimistic for a busy Labor Day weekend.
The Key West Chamber of Commerce is constantly calling local hotels and guesthouses to check room availability, occupancy rates, rates and minimum stay requirements for the estimated 5,500 rooms available in Key West, Executive Vice President Virginia Panico told The Citizen on Friday.
That figure represents hotel rooms, guesthouses and vacation rentals -- all properties that collect bed-tax dollars, Panico explained.
"There's still some availability for Friday and Sunday night, but it's looking like we'll be very busy Saturday night," she said, pointing out that thousands of South Florida residents drive down to the Keys on Saturday without a hotel reservation, and then check with a variety of establishments to negotiate a nightly room rate.
According to her figures on Friday afternoon, there still were about 300 hotel or motel rooms available in Key West for tonight and about 740 available for Sunday, but, again, she expected that number to dwindle as the vehicles navigating U.S. 1 today make landfall on the island.
"You'll definitely get the walk-ins this weekend," she said.
Key West restaurateur Joe Walsh said he was expecting a "good weekend," but added that Labor Day typically was not an overwhelmingly busy weekend for his downtown restaurants, which include Mangoes, Caroline's, Jack Flats, Red Fish Blue Fish and Fogarty's.
"For us, Labor Day is typically a slower weekend, even than the non-holiday weekends earlier in the summer, because the kids are back in school, but luckily, the holiday and the upcoming events do come in the midst of a really slow time for everyone."
Walsh and other business owners, along with their tourist-starved employees, were eagerly awaiting the fall onslaught. Events such as BrewFest, Womenfest, and the September Poker Run for motorcycle enthusiasts provide much-needed shots in the arm until the weather up north starts sending winter's refugees to the Southernmost City.