Destinations prove resilient, determined after September’s Atlantic hurricanes

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Destinations prove resilient, determined after September’s Atlantic hurricanes

By Maria Lenhart, Journalist | Oct 21, 2022

While hurricanes Ian and Fiona dealt powerful blows to southwest Florida and Puerto Rico, respectively, in September, destinations are showing impressive fortitude and some report they are already back on track for meetings and leisure tourism. Even in Lee and Collier counties on Florida’s Gulf Coast, which bore the brunt of the hurricane damage, DMOs say remarkable progress is being made to restore hospitality infrastructure in the months ahead.

When Hurricane Ian hit Florida on Sept. 27, it made landfall just north of Fort Myers in Lee County, bringing with it 18 inches of rainfall and 140-mile-per hour winds that devastated islands and coastal areas. From there, Ian headed northeast, largely sparing the Tampa-St. Petersburg area and causing flooding, but not severe damage, in Orlando and Jacksonville.

Cancellations for several large events in Florida came in the days before Hurricane Ian made landfall, as concerns about winds and flooding grew. These included DevOps World, scheduled to meet Sept. 27-29 at the Orlando World Center Marriott, and the Association of the Advancement of Blood and Biotherapies, scheduled to meet at the Orange County Convention Center, Oct. 1-4. Another cancellation came from the International Boat Builders Exhibition & Conference (IBEX), which was set for Sept. 27-29 at the Tampa Convention Center.


“We did suffer a tremendous blow with Hurricane Ian to our community here in Lee County,” says Pamela Johnson, deputy director of the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau, which represents Fort Myers, Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel Island and Captiva Island. “The hardest hit were the islands. However, we are a very resilient community. We’ve suffered before with other crises and other hurricanes, although this one was bigger than what we’ve seen in my lifetime.”

Johnson, who spoke with The Meeting Professional in mid-October, noted that local hotels were still assessing the damage, and some had set tentative dates for reopening, but initially they will primarily be serving emergency crews. 

When Lee County hotels will be available for leisure guests and meetings varies widely according to property and location, she says. While many inland hotels are already open, they are full of first-responders, insurance assessors and the other hurricane-related business.

“And, of course, the hotels on the barrier islands in Fort Myers Beach are closed right now and are still trying to assess when they anticipate reopening,” Johnson says. “For some, it’s a matter of restoring electricity and water, while for others it will take much longer as they need to rebuild.”

For Lee County meeting business, Ian couldn’t have struck at a worse time.

“We were just entering our strongest meeting season—fall and spring are our prime times,” Johnson says. “Our director of sales has been working with meeting planners to help them get in touch with the hotels, trying to reschedule those meetings. For those who can’t reschedule, we’re working with meeting planners to at least keep the meeting in Florida, so we can share with our partners.”

For groups who are scheduled to meet in Lee County next year, Johnson urges them to stick with their plans.

“Please don’t cancel, give us an opportunity to show you how we are rebounding,” she says. “We ask you to stay in touch with the [convention bureau]—having your meeting here will help us recover. A lot of things that used to take months or years to repair can now be rebuilt quickly.”

As an example, Johnson says there has already been a temporary restoration of the destroyed main bridge connecting Sanibel Island to the mainland, which is allowing line workers to get to the island in order to restore utilities. 

When meetings do return, there will also be ample opportunities for groups to aid in the recovery efforts, she added.

“A lot of recovery to infrastructure and the environment will be going on long-term and we’ll be communicating those opportunities,” she says.

In the meantime, the Lee County VCB has established an online portal for donations to help displaced hospitality workers in the community.


In Collier County, which brands itself as the Paradise Coast, meetings business is already coming back, according to Lisa Chamberlain (MPI Tampa Bay Area Chapter), group sales manager for the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades CVB.

“Our destination is quickly rebounding at a staggering pace,” she says. “In fact, just two weeks post-storm, two of our largest resorts, the JW Marriott Beach Resort & Spa in Marco Island and the Naples Grande Beach Resort & Spa in Naples, are hosting full conference buy-outs. Many of our resorts have anticipated reopening dates [by the end of] November and others are taking reservations beginning in January. Our doors are open, and the welcome mat is out.”

Chamberlain added that the CVB is receiving supportive feedback from meeting planners.

“They understand the economic impact that a large meeting can bring to an area and remain committed to supporting our local economy,” she says. “Many planners have requested information about CSR opportunities and volunteer projects that are aligned with our recovery efforts.”

In order to maintain visibility and get the word out that the destination is open for business, the CVB attended two high-profile events in October, IMEX America in Las Vegas and a Sophisticated Weddings networking event during New York Bridal Fashion Week, Chamberlain says.

“If meeting professionals are seeking ways to support the region, we encourage you to talk to us about planning your next meeting in Florida’s Paradise Coast,” she added. “Your support has never been more important or appreciated than now.”

Those who would like to make a monetary contribution toward relief efforts are encouraged to contact the Collier Community Foundation.


In contrast to Florida’s hard-hit communities, Puerto Rico’s major hospitality infrastructure was largely unscathed when Hurricane Fiona, a Category One storm that hit the southwest coast on Sept. 18, causing flooding and an island-wide power outage for several days. With San Juan and nearby resort areas only minimally affected, the island’s airports and cruise terminals soon reopened and most hotels, beaches, restaurants, golf courses and attractions have been back in operation since late September. El Yunque National Rainforest sustained damage, but partially reopened on Oct. 10. The undamaged Puerto Rico Convention Center hosted the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association’s Caribbean Travel Marketplace event a mere two weeks after the storm. 

“We have extensive experience managing through adversity and coming back stronger, better and better prepared for the future,” says Brad Dean (MPI South Florida Chapter), CEO of Discover Puerto Rico. “The response was pretty quick to get tourism up and running. This is a setback, not a reset for the island.”

Discover Puerto Rico, citing data from digital services firm TravelClick, reported that island hotels are experiencing “an increase in bookings with demand due to relief efforts and meetings and conventions” and that “hotel occupancy is strong for October with [a] significant increase in both leisure and group over 2021.”




Maria Lenhart, Journalist

Maria Lenhart is an award-winning journalist specializing in travel and meetings industry topics. A former senior editor at Meetings Today, Meetings & Conventions and Meeting News, her work has also appeared in Skift, EventMB, The Meeting Professional, BTN, MeetingsNet, AAA Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Christian Science Monitor, Toronto Globe and Mail, Los Angeles Times and many other publications. Her books include Hidden Oregon, Hidden Pacific Northwestand the upcoming (with Linda Humphrey) Secret Cape Cod.