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Hotel CEO: Storms won't deter tourists

Florida's biggest hotel operator on Thursday said this summer of major hurricanes may have made Florida look like a star-crossed disaster zone, but the image won't last.

"This will pass quickly from peoples' minds," said Bill Marriott, chairman and chief executive officer of Marriott International. "Once the frost and cold weather returns, people will be back in Florida."

He described the damage to 184 Florida Marriott properties as minor. The lost business is rebounding, but Marriott's huge time-sharing operation in Orlando was the hardest hit because its sales force had few people to pitch.

But Florida, where his company manages hotels with a total of 38,000 rooms, is in need of a "massive PR campaign," he said.

The state's tourist industry leaders agree. They are trying to muster support in the Florida Legislature for up to $30-million extra in state money for recovery marketing and advertising.

Concerned that business is suffering from intense hurricane news coverage, Visit Florida Inc. will spend all $2-million of its emergency reserves promoting the state's tourist industry. But the campaign will not begin with Hurricane Jeanne lingering off the coast.

The state Commission on Tourism has earmarked $200,000 of that money to research just how badly the state's tourist business and image has been hobbled. The commission hopes the study provides evidence to back their case for the extra money when the group meets Oct. 4 with Gov. Jeb Bush, the group's chairman and the only one who can summon the Legislature for specific issues.

Marriott's reassurances came at the dedication of the 287-room Renaissance Tampa Hotel International Plaza on Thursday.

It was a fitting venue. The hotel opened three days before Hurricane Charley blew through the state's midsection. By the time Hurricane Frances brushed by Labor Day, about half the property's first month's bookings had been canceled. The hotel was 90 percent full thanks to locals.

"People have given this hotel great marks," said Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. "Many of them were only looking for a place that had electricity and ice."

The hotel, which has AAA four-diamond rating aspirations, includes 12,500 square feet of meeting space and an Italian restaurant named Pelagia Trattoria. The opening continues Marriott's aggressive plan to beef up its Tampa Bay area market share.

Marriott, which manages 10 franchised hotel brands from budget-priced Fairfield Inn up to luxury class Ritz-Carlton, has almost doubled its Tampa Bay room count in five years. After the 714-room Tampa Marriott Waterside opened in 2000, Marriott added seven more hotels with 1,200 rooms. That brings the total to 4,320 rooms and 1,779 employees. A new Residence Inn opens in Oldsmar in December and a Towne Plaza Suites in Brandon in 2006. Marriott is in talks with developers for a Courtyard hotel in downtown St. Petersburg and a Spring Hill Suites in Clearwater.

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