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Strengthening Demand

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  • | 9:56 a.m. December 23, 2011
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If you're in the hotel business, you know Tony Lapi.

A 35-year veteran of the industry and CEO of Rochester Resorts, Lapi runs the iconic Tween Waters Inn on Captiva and cottages on nearby Sanibel. He's also the chairman of Visit Florida, Florida's tourism arm.

Tourism has been one of the bright spots of Florida's economy this year and Lapi is confident of a repeat in 2012. Lapi discusses some of the topics the industry will face in the coming year.

Q: What is your No. 1 priority as the chairman of Visit Florida?

A: To continue to have Florida be the No. 1 travel destination in the world.

Q: Does the agency have a large enough budget to do that?

A: We have to do a spend that is competitive in the world marketplace today. We feel we need more to stay competitive. Gov. Scott and the Legislature have been very favorable toward Visit Florida. They do that because we are part of the solution with creating jobs and creating tax revenues.

Q: Are you looking for a budget increase?

A: We would like to have a budget increase if possible. We know the state is strained. We are trying to get to $130 million by 2016. But remember that's not all tax dollars; more than half of that is matched by partners on the corporate side.

Q: We've seen some significant increases in hotel occupancy but room rates haven't risen in proportion. Why? When are hoteliers going to raise rates?

A: We're going to have to raise them slowly. We skyrocketed from 2004 to 2007 and it was a little bit of insanity. The new norm is people are very savvy in shopping. We are competing with other destinations, not just in Florida. And you have to provide value for your guests.

Q: But if occupancies continue to rise as they have, could you raise rates?

A: I don't think you're going to see big jumps, but 2% to 3% is certainly not out of line, depending on demand. Remember, there have been some more units added since 2007.

Q: What is your opinion of the resort destinations and casinos being proposed in Lee County and elsewhere? Has Visit Florida taken a position?

A: I don't have an opinion on the casino issue. I believe it's both a local and legislative issue. Visit Florida, in my own opinion, would be there to market it but not take a position whether it should be built and where it would happen.

Q: What is your forecast for 2012, particularly for the winter season?

A: Advance bookings are showing well right now but there's a concern about the amount of airlift we can bring to the state.

Q: Besides cuts in air service, airfares and baggage fees have been rising. How is that going to impact the state?

A: That cuts into the budget of the traveler, no question about it. I think it'll have some impact, but it's the same impact of whether they're traveling to Florida or some other destination. So in that sense it's a level playing field. But we all know airlines work on demand and on the flights during the heavy season ticket prices go up.

Q: Do you have any sense yet of how the Euro zone crisis will affect European travel to Florida? If Europeans don't visit in big numbers, who would replace them?

A: Nothing yet, but we know from this last summer that we had a very good jump from foreign visitors. Brazilians were off the charts. One of the big challenges is to try to get Brazil on visa waiver. Brazil is loaded with people who want to be here, but the process to get here is so difficult that's it's really like trying to use too small of a funnel to get the volume that wants to be here. The ease of having a visa waiver makes it better.

Q: Are groups and people still booking at the last minute?

A: The window is still short. That's part of the mindset. That'll happen even in March. A year or two ago 10% of our business was walk-in trade.

Q: Could the booking window lengthen with the economy improving?

A: It may. If you were worried about losing your job, that fear may be gone. Now, you may need to plan a vacation.

Q: Is the BP oil spill issue finished?

A: As far as the marketing standpoint, it's gone. It's kind of a non-issue now, especially after coming through a great summer. It's in the rear-view mirror.

Q: Are hoteliers in Lee County worried that politicians might use bed-tax money for other purposes than tourism?

A: It's a concern. We collect the tax and then the visitors' bureau uses those dollars to market the area. Those dollars are used to bring people here and those people spend money. If you start diverting those dollars to things other than marketing, you're going to kill the golden goose. There's a portion of that money that goes to capital funds, which is helping to build the Boston Red Sox spring training stadium [in Fort Myers], but you do not want to go past that threshold.

Q: Is that an issue in other counties?

A: I hear it around the state. It is a concern, because in lean times money is tight. In my own business here I have an advertising budget. If I cut into it too deeply, that's going to affect my overall business.


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