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Business Observer Thursday, Sep. 11, 2003 15 years ago

Tourism Upswing

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Southwest Florida is hot again. There were more visitors to Lee County in July than in same month prior to 9/11.

Tourism Upswing

Southwest Florida is hot again. There were more visitors to Lee County in July than in same month prior to 9/11.

By William R. Waites

Associate Editor

FORT MYERS - They're ba-a-ack.

Southwest Florida retailers, restaurateurs, real estate people and hotel managers can take comfort in the knowledge that the tourism pipeline is filling up again after the decline that followed 9/11.

Walter Klages, president of Research Data Services, which monitors tourism in Lee County, reported that the number of visitors to Lee in July exceeded the same month in 2001 by 8%, with year-to-date visitation 3% ahead of the period before September 2001.

At the same time, occupancy and average daily room rents are higher than they were for the same period in 2001.

D. T. Minich, executive director of the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau, says tourist tax collections were higher for July than any summer month within the past four years. And passenger traffic at Southwest Florida International Airport is breaking new records with 3.78 million year-to-date as of July 2003, Minich says. The airport serves Charlotte and Collier counties as well as Lee.

Charlotte and Collier, which also rely on Research Data Services, Inc., showed similar, but not quite so buoyant trends.

Collier's deputy tax collector says tourist taxes collected for July 2003 were 9.5% ahead of the same month in 2002, and just 3% behind July 2001.

JoNell Modys, account executive with Kelley Swofford Roy, the advertising agency that handles both Collier and Charlotte marketing, says the faster rebound of Lee vs. Collier can be attributed to Lee's special emergency budget that allowed the county to boost spending in the wake of 9/11.

Minich agrees in part. Lee allocated an additional $800,000 in advertising media between October 2001 and spring 2003. He attributes the power of the resurgence in Lee to changes in marketing strategy. "Prior to 9/11," Minich says, "we emphasized awareness. We advertised everywhere to everyone. Since then, we have concentrated more on our key markets, with regional buys rather than buying nationally. We also maintained our presence in Europe, even during the hard times. Now Europe is coming back and we are benefiting from being there."

Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau also devoted more effort and funds to developing and promoting its Web site, which now is seeing increases in visitors using the Internet for travel information and reservations, Minich says. According to the Research Data Services, more than 90% of Lee's visitors in July had Internet access and 75.3% of them used the Internet to obtain travel information, while 58.4% actually booked travel reservations online.

Carlos Cabrera, vice president and general manager of one of Lee's newest properties, the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa in Bonita Springs, offers an interesting perspective: "We don't really have a way to compare with 2001 since we didn't open until September 2001. But I can tell you that we were worried looking forward into 2002."

Those fears were real, Cabrera says, especially for a new resort in a location with no awareness, although the year turned out to be better than expected. Hyatt's business in 2003 reflects the same return to growth that the overall county is realizing, with strong projections for the rest of the year. "August was an outstanding month for us," Cabrera says. "We attribute a great deal of the (growth) to the VCB. They are doing a good job in driving growth."

Dian Eddy, director of sales/marketing for Rochester Resorts, says growth at the firm's 'Tween Waters resort on Captiva is where it was in 2001, which was an outstanding year prior to Sept. 11. This is reflected in a 16% increase in occupancy in July over the same month a year earlier. Eddy attributes the rebound to the persistence of the Lee Island Coast Visitor & Convention Bureau staying in the market with promotional messages, especially in Europe. "We've seen an increase in European guests, especially people from Britain," Eddy reported.

In Collier, the Naples Beach Hotel and Golf Club reported its individual guest business appears to have returned to pre-Sept. 11 levels in July 2003. Group and meeting business, however, which represent about 35% of hotel's business remains soft. Hotel General Manager Jim Gunderson says that's a reflection of the generally weak economic situation rather than post-Sept. 11 reactions.

Also in Naples, SunStream Hotels and Resorts' Park Shore Inn has had a spectacular year so far, says Lianne Crawford-Smith, marketing services manager. She reported 90.2% occupancy, a 23% increase in July 2003, compared to 73.2% in July 2001. SunStream's other properties on Fort Myers Beach also are benefiting from the resurgence, with Diamondhead showing a 4% improvement over 2001.

Charlotte County also experienced an upswing. Charlotte County Visitors Bureau Director Becky Bovelle says tourist tax collections increased 5.8% in July 2003 over July 2001. And she expects August to be better. An ESPN event in August resulted in a sell-out of rooms, a first for Charlotte.

The St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau reports a similar rebound from Sept. 11 with a 3% increase in visitation in June from the same month two years earlier. But the area has seen a decline in occupancy, with higher average room rates, for comparable months in 2001 vs. 2003. Pinellas has not yet seen the full resurgence of demand that has benefited Lee, Collier and Charlotte.

In Manatee, tourist tax revenues, as reported by the Bradenton Area Visitor and Convention Bureau, are up 2.9% in July from the same month in 2001. This was accompanied by a 4% increase in the average daily room rate and a return to the same level of occupancy for the comparable periods.

Sarasota is also rebounding. The county reported a 4.4% increase in tourist taxes in July compared to the same month in 2001.

The growth in tourism on the Gulf Coast counties follows a period of dramatic contraction in 2002 and early 2003. Numbers were not available for the Hillsborough area.

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