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The Sunshine Economy

The Sunshine Economy: Conferences And The Coronavirus

Lynne Sladky
AP Photo
Beach goers lie on the beach during spring break, Saturday, March 14, 2020, in Miami Beach. Portions of South Beach were closed at 5 p.m. Saturday to avoid large group gatherings that could spread the coronavirus.

Some beaches have closed. Cruise ships are docked. Airlines have grounded some planes. Disney and Universal in Orlando are closed. Local attractions are shut down. Theaters are dark. Hotel reservations are cancelled. Restaurants and bars are closing early.

This business hasn’t slowed. In many cases it has stopped.

"It's been stunning how fast things have changed," said Deidre Everdij, owners of COTC Corporate Events. Six of her employees may be the first economic casualties of the business shutdown as a result of COVID-19. After moving her business expenses from an Amex card to a credit card, and cutting back on overtime hours, Everdij laid off six of her 16 employees.

On Feb. 24, a $500,000 piece of business cancelled, she said. The ripple effect impacted companies providing catering, lighting, flowers, linens, transportation and independent workers who were lined up for the work. "Our business is very seasonal. High season is January through May and we really need to be on top of that business because, like squirrels, what we put away then is what we need to live on through the summer."

Her business, like business for a lot of industries, has not slowed down, it has come to a virtual standstill as states of emergency are declared, large and even small gatherings are cancelled, people who can are encouraged to work from home, and travel stopped in the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

"Things have come to a standstill," said Tony Villamil, founder and business economics advisor at Washington Economics Group in Coral Gables, "especially impacting the leisure and hospitality industry."

This business hasn’t slowed. In many cases it has stopped. The best one can say is that it has been postponed. Melissa Medina made that early decision for eMerge Americas, the technology conference she runs. Sixteen thousand people had been expected to attend the conference when It was originally scheduled to start Mar. 30 at the Miami Beach Convention Center, but Medina accounced on Mar. 6 the conference had been postponed until early November.

"It's been the most difficult decision I have had to make business-wise, but I know it was the right decision," she said.

"There are just too many factors right now," said Greater Fort Lauderdale CEO Stacy Ritter.  The county's tourism marketing agency is not making any early guesses as to the wider impact of the virus and travel restrictions. Already, 2020 was expected to be flat to slightly down for Broward County hotels. But that wasn't the case in February. Broward hotel occupancy was 87.5 percent last month, an increase of over 1 percent from a year earlier. The average daily room rate shot up 10 percent to almost $213.

The Florida economy enters into this uncertain period in strong shape according to the standard measures. The unemployment rate was at a record low. In South Florida it was 2.2 percent in December according to state data. More than 3.1 million people in South Florida were working at the end of last year. About one out of every eight worked in the leisure and hospitality industry. And it was adding jobs at about twice the rate as the overall regional job market over the past year.

"I think that there's a real possibility that people are going to lose their jobs in Broward County," Ritter said.

"The travel and hospitality industry have significant multiplier impacts," said Villamil. "If you look at the services, the conferences, the food, the amount of support personnel for the conferences."

Cristina Mas is an example. She owns CIM Consulting, a 2-person event planning and marketing firm in Miami. "We're really looking at expenses and not eating out as much," she said. "It sounds silly, but when you add it up, it's the little things that you're doing constantly with your team."

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Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.