For years, Fort Lauderdale has been known as a hot spot for college spring breakers, family vacationers, conventioneers and cruise line passengers.
But now, so-called “bleisure” visitors — business travelers who extend their trips for a few extra days so they can take in local attractions — are making their presence felt as the COVID-19 pandemic fades and companies again underwrite the cost of sending employees out of town on business, downtown hoteliers say. Nationally, the trend has helped the industry recover from the devastating financial blows delivered by the coronavirus, according to a top industry official.
The visitors to Fort Lauderdale are arriving from large U.S. cities, Europe and South America. One hotel has become a popular spot for technology companies that are using it for brainstorming sessions among employees who haven’t seen each other since the COVID breakout.
“We have very specific companies and groups that come in, and you definitely ascertain they are in the bleisure market,” said Jason Alexander, sales director for a new Courtyard Marriott in Flagler Village on Federal Highway.
Technology and medical companies from as far away as San Francisco and Ireland are frequenting the hotel, which has aligned its amenities to accommodate the guests’ work and play requirements, he said.
At Las Olas Boulevard’s venerable Riverside Hotel, the city’s oldest, there’s an easy way to spot the bleisure traveler, said general manager Heiko Dobrikow.
“You see people in the lobby with their laptops and they’re working,” he said. “But their attire does not reflect the attire of a business person.”
“Bleisure travel is here to stay because technology has advanced in such a way that we can work anywhere in the world,” he said. “Most people can work from anywhere and still get a job done.”
He said bookings are strong for the forthcoming Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, which is scheduled for late October and traditionally an event that generates both business and leisure visits.
At the Hyatt Centric Las Olas to the west, bleisure traffic started in early 2021, took a brief pause for COVID variants late in the year, and came on strong again this past spring, said Katherine Beja-Mclennan, director of sales and marketing.
“We had a lot of demand in March, April and June,” she said, and it continued through the summer. ”Our occupancies have been very high compared to 2019 levels.”
She said the guests come mainly from the U.S., as well as from Canada, the United Kingdom and Brazil.
“It’s funny because generally you wouldn’t think Brazil is a market for Fort Lauderdale specifically, but definitely we do get our fair share,” Beja-Mclennan said.
The hotel also welcomes workers to use its facilities through a day pass. Its “Office for the Day” program allows for the private use of a guest room from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and includes premium Wi-Fi, dining discounts and access to the hotel gym, pool and spa.
Downtown shared work spaces, restaurants and the Brightline rail service are benefiting.
Some bleisure travelers require pure office spaces that hotels don’t offer, said Tim Hasse, founder of General Provision in Fort Lauderdale.
“It’s been something that’s steadily rising,” he said. “This is not something we had a lot of emphasis on pre-pandemic.”
As a result, the company is modifying its membership-based business model, allowing single-day passes for those who need to drop in and use its spaces for short periods of time.
“They can use it whether it’s one day or one month,” Hasse said. “That’s the range of use.”
He’s adding another 25 private offices and additional work space “which will better accommodate these types of travelers who are dropping in.”
Restaurants are seeing out-of-town businesspeople with families in tow, said Emi Guerra, a founder Breakwater Hospitality Group of Miami, owner of The Wharf Fort Lauderdale and Rivertail downtown.
“You can tell by the way they’re dressed,” he said, noting the fathers are in slacks while spouses and children are clad in resort wear.
“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in general. Guests are coming in from out of town. And it’s been great.”
At Brightline, the inter-city railroad that serves the downtowns of Fort Lauderdale, Miami and West Palm Beach, the company “has experienced a significant increase in business travel to leisure” since its resumption of service late last year after a lengthy COVID-driven layoff, a spokeswoman said.
Its local transportation links to and from its stations help passengers reach tourist spots in Fort Lauderdale, in Miami Beach, Miami’s Brickell Avenue district, and The Square in West Palm Beach.
Peter Ricci, professor and director of the hospitality and tourism management program at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, said the bleisure travel concept has been around for more than a decade.
“COVID heightened the use of travel for bleisure in that people are often working remotely anyway, so they simply travel with friends, family, significant others, or on their own and mix in work/life quality time with their trips,” he said by email. “If they’re attending a business meeting, they’ll come a day or two ahead or stay a day or two longer.
“Hotels and restaurants and destinations can benefit greatly from the ‘bleisure’ phenomenon by extending the length of stay for their typical traveler,” he added. “If a destination had a typical stay of 2.3 days, I would hope that this bleisure phenomenon would extend that to 3 days as just one example. Added length of stay means more revenues in destination, more dollars for our local workers, and more tax dollars for our communities.”
Ricci asserted the hotel industry can better profit from the sector by “quite openly and transparently promoting bleisure or ‘work remotely from the beach’ type of advertising and marketing.”
“There are have been some campaigns,” he said, but not enough make any hotels stand out as a leader in the field.
The American Hotel and Lodging Association in Washington, D.C., an industry trade group, credits bleisure travelers with helping the hotels’ recovery.
“The increased prevalence of remote work during the pandemic has fueled the emergence of new types of hotel guests, including bleisure travelers and digital nomads,” Chip Rogers, the association president and CEO, said in an emailed statement. “Bleisure travelers blend business and leisure trips while digital nomads travel while they work, staying in different destinations for as long as they want.”
A survey commissioned by the association in May found that 82% of business travelers would be interested in extending their trips by a day or two for leisure purposes.
“So this is one trend that started during the pandemic that we hope sticks around,” Rogers said.
Fort Lauderdale has no campaign per se to attract the bleisure traveler. But Broward County’s Visit Lauderdale tourism promotional agency has designed its marketing to move past its traditional beach-centric appeals “to highlighting the diversity of the community and the downtown experience,” said Jenni Morejon, CEO of the Downtown Development Authority.
“It’s been kind of a fun trend or story to hit on,” she said. “As businesses engaged their employees for conferences and meetings, we feel as though hotels have been so successful with leisure that they want to make this a destination for business travel as well.”
Some hotels are actively cultivating certain industry groups to visit.
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The technology workers didn’t find the Courtyard Marriott in Flagler Village by chance, Alexander said. The hotel, which opened its doors last year, reached out to specialty travel planners in California and Europe through online digital marketing efforts.
Some of the visitors are employed by companies with headquarters in Broward County. Others are from companies based in the San Francisco area “but have half their teams here.”
He said the worker-guests are eager to explore the community, hopping on water taxis to other parts of town and even participating in beach cleanups.
“It’s interesting to me to see a group of co-workers vacationing together,” he said. “It benefits us because they stay longer. I think that our destination is important. In olden times it may not have been as important.”
Bleisure travelers also have been spotted at beach hotels that normally count on pure leisure travelers for the majority of their business.
“We have seen our business travelers tacking on extra days for some fun in the sun and to enjoy all of the amenities we have to offer,” said Trish Penderson, director of sales and marketing at the AC Hotel Fort Lauderdale Beach .
“The bleisure traveler is a real trend these days, and we see it not only with the business traveler but also with the leisure traveler who needs to check in with work while on vacation,” she said. “Being able to work remotely has only added to the popularity of this movement we are seeing.”