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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 19, 2003 18 years ago

In Pursuit of Sand and Tan

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Move out of the way: Tourism on the Gulf Coast has returned to 2000 levels and is expected to go higher next year.

In Pursuit of Sand and Tan

Move out of the way: Tourism on the Gulf Coast has returned to 2000 levels and is expected to go higher next year.

By Sean Roth

Real Estate Editor

So you think there are more cars and trucks on the roads these days? You're right.

Tourists, are returning to Florida's Gulf Coast in pursuit of our natural amenities - namely temperate winter weather and gorgeous sandy beaches. They can't stay away. The only questions up for grabs: "How many friends do they bring?" "How much will they pay to visit?" and "When are they coming?" Local experts and a new survey from the University of Miami paint an optimistic picture of the tourism market in 2004.

Larry Starr, president of ResortQuest International Inc. in Southwest Florida, a provider of vacation rentals primarily in resort and high-destination areas, is seeing particularly good trends. Starr's ResortQuest region encompasses much of Florida's West Coast - just north of Tampa to Marco Island, and it includes about 2,500 properties.

"We are 20% higher (in bookings) than the same time last year," says Starr. "This past July was our first breath of fresh air since 9/11. It has also been the first time since 9/11 when sales tax collections were up over the previous year. It is now even up over 2000. ¦ We see this trend continuing through Easter."

While European travel bookings still lag behind national and in-state travelers, they have improved. At one point, European travel to Florida was down 40%. It's now equal to the 2000 level.

"We have had a good winter base," Starr says. "We are looking forward to a very good season, summer and future."

Virginia Haley, executive director of the Sarasota County Convention and Visitors Bureau, agrees, but she says vacation lengths have declined.

"We are still concerned about how the length of stay has been affected," she says. "It is something we still have to look at. But I have heard that so far we are having a really good pre-season."

Haley says the lean years have made tourism organizations more focused on their niche customers. For instance, she says, one of the biggest keys to this summer's successful tourism numbers was John Deere's Lawn and Garden division meetings at the Sarasota Hyatt, Lakewood Ranch Holiday Inn and the Ritz-Carlton.

"We saw a significant bounce," says Haley. "We will continue to woo John Deere. Next year, we are hoping to host them again."

In addition, closer collaboration among Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties on collective marketing is starting to work, she says, adding, "We are starting to get more calls and inquires. I think the regional approach is important."

Larry White, executive director of Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, says Manatee County saw one of its best May and summers ever.

"We are still recovering," says White. "We are still seeing a decrease in foreign summer business, but we saw an increase in local summer business to make up for it. Absent any kind of attack, I think people feel better. All the surveys say people feel better."

The biggest change in regional tourism, White says, is the longer distance tourists have been willing to drive since 9/11. "For a number of years, the limit that people would drive one way to get to a vacation spot has been about 500 miles," he says. "Now we are seeing people from markets as far away as 1,200 miles."

The recovery and continued optimism is also being felt in the Tampa Bay market. "Since April of this year, we are seeing record numbers," says Carole Ketterhagen, executive director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We are in a very positive position. All of our markets are showing significant signs of recovery."

Ketterhagen attributes most of the growth to strong leisure marketing and the national economic recovery. "There is optimism across the country," she says. "Providing there are no other major issues (i.e. terrorism), next year should be the strongest market on record not just for tourism but for the entire economy."

Steve Hayes, executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau, is cautiously optimistic.

"Right now it looks like business is going to be good," he says, "but, if you look a couple months into 2004, it becomes more uncertain. Most people only book their trip 16 days ahead of time. The downside for us right now is there are not as many conventions planned for '04, but we might pick that up in the single listings. The average lead time for meetings is almost six months. It was down to as low as four months. Our first test will be the Christmas holiday."

The southern Gulf Coast counties are also predicting a healthy 2004. "Everything seems to be in place for a very good season," says D.T. Minich, executive director for the Lee County visitor and convention bureau. "All our indicators are very positive. Tour operators are looking good, especially with the strength of the Euro. The only dip we had this year was in February and March when there was trepidation about the war."

Piling on to those local positive projections is a survey commissioned by Visit Florida, the state's public-private tourism organization. The study, Outlook for Florida Tourism 2004, is the first time Visit Florida has prognosticated on the future health of Florida.

The report, by Ira Sheskin and Patrick Fishe at the University of Miami, represents survey results from 207 hoteliers, attraction owners, business executives and tourism officials from across Florida. Fifty-five percent of the respondents said that since Labor Day their business had increased from the same period last year, while 18% reported a decrease and 27% said business remained level. About 27% reported that business since Labor Day had increased by 5% to 10%; the total average increase was 2.9%. Additionally, about half reported that since Labor Day future bookings have increased, with the largest group (26%) reporting growth of 5% to 10%. The average growth rate of bookings was 3.4%.

More than three-quarters (76%) of the respondents predicted an increase in business this winter compared to the previous one. Eighty-three percent reported they expected bookings in 2004 to increase over 2003; another 13% reported that it would stay constant. The average expected increase in bookings for 2004 was about 3.7%, with almost half reporting a 5% to 10% increase.

The sole lagging indicator for the future of tourism appears to be discounting. Experts expressed worry about the effect on the local market of the heavy discounts, pushed by the hospitality industry post 9/11. While the Gulf Coast market didn't go into the discount frenzy that occurred in Orlando, it may be awhile before the region returns to its former price structure.

"We need to see some recovery in the average daily rate," says Starr. "Customers have become accustomed to too many deals. There is a little bit of sticker shock for some customers. Our area of Florida is not as affected as Orlando, where some hotels are still offering $19 room rates."

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY TOURIST DEVELOPMENT TAX

Difference Percentage

Month2001200220032001-2002increase

October $1,105,828.28 $1,249,602.95 $1,114,939.17 $(134,664)-10.8%

November $1,006,436.02 $1,083,602.78 N/A

December $984,715.03 $1,104,437.38 N/A

January $1,971,602.38 $1,387,039.70 $1,390,128.53 $3,089 0.2%

February $1,851,795.12 $1,656,656.31 $1,719,027.29 $62,371 3.8%

March $2,005,566.46 $1,806,431.93 $1,683,285.92 $(123,146)-6.8%

April $1,485,124.53 $1,385,812.32 $1,418,279.60 $32,467 2.3%

May $1,239,685.49 $1,038,883.14 $1,252,536.24 $213,653 20.6%

June $1,118,515.02 $1,077,314.84 $1,106,013.15 $28,698 2.7%

July $1,162,925.16 $1,059,604.97 $1,129,177.01 $69,572 6.6%

August $1,011,684.43 $992,610.16 $1,046,784.98 $54,175 5.5%

September $858,464.74 $972,629.24 $1,133,094.14 $160,465 16.5%

TOTAL $15,804,343.66 $14,816,627.72

LEE COUNTY TOURIST DEVELOPMENT TAX

Difference Percentage

MonthFY 00/01FY 01/02FY 02/03FY01/02-FY02/03increase

October $479,154 $424,859 $444,456 $19,597 4.6%

November $635,554 $529,989 $612,320 $82,331 15.5%

December $800,659 $702,038 $737,394 $35,356 5.0%

January $1,379,282 $1,109,494 $1,150,777 $41,283 3.7%

February $1,745,440 $1,618,433 $1,567,025 $(51,408)-3.2%

March $2,264,569 $2,247,056 $2,230,313 $(16,743)-0.7%

April $1,236,721 $970,412 $1,130,362 $159,950 16.5%

May $702,340 $656,378 $704,954 $48,576 7.4%

June $678,396 $640,023 $663,188 $23,165 3.6%

July $663,804 $634,614 $706,904 $72,290 11.4%

August $517,489 $508,237 $539,581 $31,344 6.2%

September $339,082 $337,038 $351,593 $14,555 4.3%

TOTAL $11,442,490 $10,378,571 $10,838,867 $460,296 4.4%

*includes only current payments

MANATEE COUNTY TOURIST DEVELOPMENT TAX

Difference Percentage

MonthFY 00/01FY 01/02FY 02/03FY01/02-FY02/03increase

September $109,371 $111,474 $112,787 $1,313 1.2%

October $115,210 $128,038 $135,672 $7,634 6.0%

November $158,114 $147,852 $152,799 $4,947 3.3%

December $189,379 $176,323 $182,051 $5,728 3.2%

January $371,042 $340,038 $335,292 $(4,746)-1.4%

February $393,898 $402,675 $383,641 $(19,034)-4.7%

March $455,756 $473,321 $474,348 $1,027 0.2%

April $279,589 $254,410 $288,993 $34,583 13.6%

May $174,948 $181,345 $200,346 $19,001 10.5%

June $206,814 $205,555 $211,867 $6,312 3.1%

July $218,591 $220,379 $226,003 $5,624 2.6%

August $165,045 $157,806 $163,635 $5,829 3.7%

TOTAL $2,837,757.00 $2,799,216.00 $2,867,434.00 $68,218 2.4%

*gross revenue

PINELLAS COUNTY TOURIST DEVELOPMENT TAX

Difference Percentage

MonthFY 00/01FY 01/02FY 02/03FY01/02-FY02/03increase

October N/A $988,422.31 $1,019,621.31 $31,199 3.2%

November N/A $816,319.67 $999,249.66 $182,930 22.4%

December N/A $995,000.74 $907,949.87 $(87,051)-8.7%

January N/A $1,287,360.13 $1,289,159.61 $1,799 0.1%

February N/A $1,821,487.65 $1,784,808.94 $(36,679)-2.0%

March N/A $2,326,927.76 $2,316,191.97 $(10,736)-0.5%

April N/A $1,664,776.25 $1,818,530.76 $153,755 9.2%

May N/A $1,299,888.58 $1,366,833.99

June N/A $1,288,453.79 $1,297,398.09 $8,944 0.7%

July N/A $1,469,781.71 $1,463,866.04 $(5,916)-0.4%

August N/A $1,074,763.55 $1,180,024.49 $105,261 9.8%

September N/A $832,821.11 $1,109,705.70 $276,885 33.2%

TOTAL N/A $15,866,003.25 $16,553,340.43 $687,337 4.3%

*gross revenue

SARASOTA COUNTY TOURIST DEVELOPMENT TAX

*collections through Oct. 31, 2003

Difference Percentage

MonthFY 00/01FY 01/02FY 02/03FY01/02-FY02/03increase

October $281,405.22 $260,502.60 $277,042.13 $16,539.53 6.3%

November $350,850.74 $331,179.17 $323,773.82 $(7,405.35)-2.2%

December $428,920.91 $390,851.92 $383,167.73 $(7,684.19)-2.0%

January $893,131.10 $811,929.76 $719,551.07 $(92,378.69)-11.4%

February $924,094.00 $919,855.66 $865,704.78 $(54,150.88)-5.9%

March $1,045,139.68 $1,072,061.61 $1,034,929.52 $(37,132.09)-3.5%

April $655,876.65 $555,782.24 $632,719.16 $76,936.92 13.8%

May $358,004.73 $354,012.28 $385,255.96 $31,243.68 8.8%

June $371,902.33 $374,320.29 $362,813.68 $(11,506.61)-3.1%

July $412,133.51 $413,860.25 $442,573.99 $28,713.74 6.9%

August $296,750.90 $292,007.95 $306,066.83 $14,058.88 4.8%

September $192,862.90 $185,223.32 $197,187.96 $11,964.64 6.5%

TOTAL $6,211,072.67 $5,961,587.05 $5,930,786.63 $(30,800.42)-0.5%

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