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‘As big as the Super Bowl’: High hopes for this year’s Art Basel impact on Miami

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 11/29/2021 Anna Jean Kaiser, Miami Herald

This week, as Miami welcomes back Art Basel after it was canceled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, expectations are high for the festival’s 18th edition, not just for art buffs — but also for the thousands of hospitality workers, food vendors and local businesses affected by the influx of tourists.

With international travel restrictions recently lifted for 33 countries, including in key markets like Europe and Brazil, and life returning to something of a “new normal” amid Covid, organizers and hospitality industry leaders are projecting the event will match pre-pandemic economic impact.

“Art Basel is really helping our destination evolve as an arts and culture center,” said David Whitaker, the president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. Whitaker likened it to how the South by Southwest festival solidified the reputation of Austin as a music city.

“What we’re experiencing now, it’s a perfect example of a transformative event that helps a destination elevate year round,” he said.

The bureau said airport traffic indicates that Art Basel may draw even more visitors than it did in 2019. Miami International Airport expects an average of 130,000 daily passengers from Dec. 1-3, a 5% increase over the same period two years ago.

The bureau also said that in 2001, the year before Art Basel came to Miami, hotel occupancy for the week of Dec. 8 (when Basel is usually held) was only 45%, but by Art Basel week in 2019, 85.5% of the county’s hotel rooms were full. Hotel numbers for this year are not yet available.

Whitaker says the festival, which has made headlines for eye-popping art prices, has slowly started to become more accessible to Miamians, with this year offering a number of free events.

“In the early years, everything was contained to convention center,” Whitaker said. “Now we have dozens of events across many different neighborhoods, which speaks to that fact that this is no longer just a private and ticketed event in a convention center, it’s a community-wide celebration.”

But the first Art Basel since the coronavirus pandemic will look a little different, and present some challenges. All visitors over 12 to the official Art Basel show at the Miami Beach convention center must provide proof of vaccination, a negative covid test or proof of recent recovery from COVID-19. Everyone over 2 must wear a mask indoors.

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The crowd may be a little different, too — while Art Basel, a Swiss festival, usually attracts wealthy art collectors from all over the world, some of Miami’s largest hotels are reporting that the majority of their bookings are domestic for the week of Art Basel.

“We are projecting to sell out from Dec. 1st to 5th, even though we are removed from the actual Art Basel action. It speaks volumes about the impact this event has city wide,” said Matthias Kammerer, the managing director of the historic Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. “Despite the opening for international travel, our business is almost entirely domestic for Art Basel.”

Kevin Diemar, the president and CEO of Unity Jets, a Miami-based private jet brokerage firm, said he is expecting a 20-25% increase in demand specifically for Art Basel, with the majority of clients coming from the Northeast.

“I think Art Basel has become as big as the Super Bowl or any other event where people travel for the event specifically,” Diemar said.

“It’s obviously a well-heeled crowd who are used to flying privately or have chosen to fly private because of pandemic safety concerns,” he added. “Because of the location and the draw to South Florida in the wintertime, demand goes up that much more. A lot of people don’t even come for the art, they’re coming for the party. It’s another good reason to be in Miami.”

But many of the workers and small-business owners behind the scenes are struggling with inflation, a worker shortage and the supply chain issues that have come with the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Robert Egert, the owner of Exquisite Catering by Robert, says that he’s booked a small, multi-day event at a gallery for Art Basel already. With about a week’s notice, he got a request for a three-day event at another gallery for 150-200 people but he’s unsure he’ll be able to source all the ingredients he’ll need, and find enough staff, in order to make that gig profitable. Egert said he’ll try to make it work by offering to pay servers $200 for the evening, when the industry standard is around $150.

“I hate to say it, but at a certain point it doesn’t make sense to take a job because of the aggravation,” he said.

Egert is feeling the squeeze from the economic issues facing the entire country — the high fuel prices mean filling up the tanks of his 19 trucks is more expensive, inflation is causing prices of menu-staples like beef tenderloin to sky-rocket and supply chain issues are causing shortages of basics like aluminum foil that he needs to run the business.

“We’ve been fortunate to be busy,” Egert said. “We may have to work more hours finding supplies and we may have to change the menu and tweak things but we’re plugging through.”

Correction:In an earlier version of this story, Miami International Airport traffic for Dec. 1-3, 2019 and a projection for the same three-day period this year were misstated.

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