William Mulcahey thought he had found the perfect place for his May 2011 conference of airport firefighters: the Tradewinds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach.
He loved the big, wide beach, nearby golf courses and proximity to Orlando attractions. Perfect for 150 firefighters swapping tricks of the trade and kicking back. But weeks of watching oil gushing from the gulf floor on TV news were too much. On June 28, he decided not to sign the contract for about $30,000.
"Even if it does not reach St. Pete Beach, the potential loss of conference attendees due to the location . . . could have a potential negative impact on my event,'' wrote Mulcahey, publisher of the magazine Aviation Fire Journal, in an e-mail to the resort.
Executives at beach hotels in Pinellas say they face a problem beyond tourists staying away for the summer. Meeting planners who arrange corporate gatherings, conferences and professional training aren't booking events at Gulf Coast properties. Most sign contracts a year or more in advance.
"They're getting away from making plans and have gone silent,'' said Russ Kimball, general manager at the Sheraton Sand Key on Clearwater Beach, which gets half its revenue from group business. "I know people who were looking at Florida who aren't looking now . . . at least for 2011.''
The Tradewinds hosted a "site inspection'' Thursday that typically would attract 35 or 40 meeting planners, said chief operating officer Keith Overton. Eight showed up. "It's harder and harder to even get someone in the group business to look at you,'' he said.
Groups that booked before the oil started leaking are looking for breaks. The resort has cut some minimum room block requirements and reduced the size of nonrefundable deposits, said Overton.
An unidentified group took Sirata Beach Resort in St. Pete Beach out of the bidding this week for its 2011 meeting. The event, worth just under $100,000, went to a destination in Georgia, said Sirata president Gregg Nicklaus. He couldn't blame the meeting planner.
"What can we expect in an environment they can't control?'' Nicklaus said.
Large group events create "a huge trickle-down'' for businesses beyond hotels, said LoveLynne Jensen of Grand Events of Florida, an event producer in Tampa.
"There's the off-site venue — like a museum — for the opening night and closing parties, entertainment, servers, linen companies, day trips to the Florida Aquarium or Busch Gardens,'' she said.
Smaller hotels like big meetings, too. They get a piece of the overflow action if too many attendees show up or some want cheaper rooms. When meeting business dries up, large conference hotels put pressure on competitors by dumping rooms at bargain-basement rates through online travel agencies.
Six out of 10 hotels along the Gulf Coast lost group bookings because of the oil spill, reported a survey last month by the Knowland Group, which sells software that helps lodging managers find meeting business.
Sixty-two percent said the spill was hurting their ability to book future group business. Knowland surveyed 50 hotels, including 11 on Florida's Gulf Coast.
Meeting planners seem less worried as they look off the beaches. Tampa hotels haven't reported declining interest in group business, says Steve Hayes, executive vice president of Tampa Bay & Co., Hillsborough County's tourism agency. Ditto for downtown St. Petersburg's Vinoy Renaissance Resort, said general manager Russ Bond.
But Mulcahey, the retired New York City fire captain, said he couldn't risk tens of thousands of dollars on St. Pete Beach.
The conference attracts firefighters from China and Europe. Many plan vacations around the event. Just the perception that all Florida beaches were fouled with oil could send attendance into a tailspin. That would likely scare away event sponsors and exhibitors, said Mulcahey.
Projections that the spill could get caught in the loop current and run up the East Coast persuaded him to take Daytona Beach and Myrtle Beach, S.C. off his list.
"I might go back to Vegas,'' he said.
Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.