The possibility of a financial collapse in Europe apparently won't stop tourists from that part of the world from visiting the Gulf Coast this summer.
“We've been very concerned about the financial crisis over there, but it hasn't seemed to affect bookings,” says Mark Dickson, director of revenue for the Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina in Fort Myers Beach, echoing sentiments from Tampa to Naples. “We're going to see close to record numbers this year.”
That's important because European business during the slow summer months has become a crucial part of the tourism economy on the Gulf Coast. While fewer in numbers, European visitors have an outsized impact because they spend more time and money than their domestic counterparts.
Hoteliers, tourism marketers and airport officials all say they expect European tourists to come in greater numbers this summer, a surprise given the epic economic crisis they face. “They come during the time frame when we really need the business,” says Pamela Johnson, director of sales with the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau.
“We met with all the European tour operators in March for a trade show in Berlin, and all of them indicated their advance bookings for this summer were up over last year,” says Jack Wert, executive director of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Fortunately, over the years the Gulf Coast has drawn from countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom whose economies have been relatively strong. The area gets few visitors from Spain, Italy or Greece, for example.
In May, Edelweiss Air inaugurated nonstop service between Tampa and Zurich, and the inaugural flight brought 70 travel agents and travel writers to Tampa for a weeklong trip. Zurich is a particularly important destination because it is a hub for travel throughout Europe, Africa and Asia, opening up potential new markets for the region.
Of course, there are concerns that Europe's currencies could quickly lose their strength relative to the U.S. dollar and that economies there might slow dramatically. “The concern is: What's going to happen next year?” says Tony Lapi, chairman of Visit Florida and the CEO of Rochester Resorts and Tween Waters Inn in Captiva.
The right to vacation
Europeans take their vacations seriously.
For example, according to Mercer Consulting, British people are entitled to a minimum 28 days of vacation a year, the most generous statutory holiday entitlements in Europe. But when you include public holidays, it adds up to a minimum of 36 days of vacation.
That's good for the Gulf Coast, which has attracted British tourists for years. In fact, British Airways increased its flights from Gatwick, England, to Tampa last year and now operates daily between the two cities with a Boeing 777, says Justin Meyer, director of air service development with Tampa International Airport.
“There's going to be a little bit of a surge from the UK because a lot of people are thinking about getting out of London for the Olympics,” says D.T. Minich, executive director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Minich recently returned from a business trip to Europe and tour operators there were upbeat about this summer's bookings for Florida. That's in part because the European currencies remain strong relative to the dollar. “We're looked at as a great value,” he says. “The airfares are pretty steady, so that's helping us as well.”
Foreign air carriers increased seat capacity for the month of July between European cities and airports in Tampa and Fort Myers by 21%, according to Meyer's analysis. This is a positive sign because airlines are quick to stop unprofitable routes, he says.
Air Berlin's flights to Fort Myers have been especially popular, flying more than 87% full on average, says Carol Obermeier, director of aviation market development for Southwest Florida International Airport.
Still, there is some anxiety about the future if the fiscal crisis in Europe can't be resolved quickly. Germans booked 8.9% fewer rooms in the U.S. in the first five months of 2012 compared with same period in 2011, according to reservation processor Pegasus Solutions, quoted by the Wall Street Journal.
While Lapi says European bookings at his Captiva hotel are up 5% to 8% this summer, the current fiscal crisis in Europe likely won't manifest itself until later because Europeans book further in advance than domestic travelers. “I don't think you'll see it until 2013, in my opinion,” he says.
Favorable exchange rate
Although the fate of the Euro remains in question, it continues to trade strongly relative to the U.S. dollar. Besides making U.S. accommodations competitive, Europeans are also attracted by lower-priced merchandise.
“You see them coming back from trips to the mall with suitcases,” says David Teitelbaum, vice chairman of the Manatee County Tourism Development Council and operates Anna Maria Resorts. “They're good spenders,” says Teitelbaum, who projects a 15% boost in European guests at his resorts this summer.
Data from Visit Florida shows that while foreigners represent 11% of the annual visitors to Florida, they account for nearly 23% of the spending. Florida's foreign visitors spent almost $14 billion in 2011, a 20% increase over the previous year.
Many Europeans travel to Florida using travel agents who arrange airfare, hotel and rental cars in packages. That contrasts with domestic tourists, who tend to use the Internet and phone to book their own travel. “Germans always go to the same travel agents,” says Katja Kunz, sales manager with the Pink Shell Resort.
Germans also have been steering away from holidays in southern Europe because of the friction over the financial crisis. “No one is traveling to Greece, so they are looking for alternatives,” says Kunz, whose Pink Shell Resort has seen a 36% increase in bookings from Germans this summer compared with the same time last year.
But getting first-time visitors remains a challenge, says Russ Kimball, general manager of the Sheraton Sand Key Resort in Clearwater Beach. Most of the European business Kimball sees is repeat business, including one British guest he recently booked who has been visiting for 22 years.
Still, the Gulf Coast's relative bargain is attracting Scandinavians, too. Last year, a charter company from Denmark inaugurated flights to Fort Myers. The service was discontinued for reasons unrelated to the success of the destination, airport officials say, but it established a new link to Europe. “The Scandinavian market is very vibrant,” says Obermeier.
Bud Nocera, the former president and CEO of Visit Florida, says another reason Europeans may be coming to the U.S. in greater numbers this summer is because they're looking for a safer place to put their money. For example, they may view Florida real estate as safer investment than cash in a European bank.
“We saw the same thing in the late 1980s during the Cold War,” says Nocera, who at the time was the executive director of the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau. “We saw a great amount of investment in Southwest Florida. I was calling it Lifeboat Lee County.”